Bush meets Turkmen leader as U.S. eyes Caspian gas

ASHGABAT (Reuters) - President George W. Bush held talks with Turkmenistan’s president on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Bucharest -- their first official meeting since the Turkmen leader came to power in his gas-rich nation in 2006.

The West has been courting President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, seen as a reformist, since he took over from Saparmurat Niyazov, who showed little interest in foreign diplomacy during his 21-year rule.

Bush told Berdymukhamedov during their meeting on Thursday that the United States sought to step up dialogue with Turkmenistan, Central Asia’s top natural gas exporter bordering Iran and Afghanistan, Turkmen media reported on Friday.

“Turkmenistan has huge potential in the energy sphere ... and remains committed to its strategy of diversifying export routes on the global market,” the state Turkmen Khabarlary news agency quoted Berdymukhamedov as telling Bush.

“This position was met with full support from the U.S. president,” the agency reported.

Turkmenistan exports most of its natural gas through Russian gas monopoly Gazprom, which then resells it to Europe at higher prices.

The United States has urged Turkmenistan to find alternative routes for its exports and has lobbied for the rival Nabucco pipeline project designed to link Caspian gas with Western European markets.

While praising Berdymukhamedov’s efforts to end his nation’s isolation, some analysts have questioned his commitment to democratic change and called on Western nations to avoid putting democracy over gas in their contacts with Turkmenistan.

During his long rule, Niyazov was best known for eccentric decisions such as banning gold teeth and opera. He almost never went on foreign visits and drew criticism from the West for tolerating no political dissent.

Writing by Maria Golovnina