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HIGH HOPES

ALL the newly independent Central Asian nations are groping to find their place on the world stage. Turkmenistan, a desert country that is one of the region's poorest and most repressive, thinks it has discovered an appropriate role. It wants to be another Switzerland.

Its dictator, President Saparmurat Niyazov, came up with the idea after his capital, Ashkhabad, became the site for talks between Tajikistan's government and opposition.

Like the civil war that has devastated that country, the talks to end it have dragged on fitfully. But they have turned Ashkhabad into a frequent wire-service dateline and an occasional destination for the world's peacemakers.

Last year, Turkmenistan asked for the United Nations to confirm its neutrality. With some puzzlement, the UN complied.

That triumph went unnoticed elsewhere in the world, but has been front-page news here for months. To commemorate its country's new status, the Turkmenistan Spark newspaper changed its name to Neutral Turkmenistan.

Like Switzerland, Turkmenistan is hemmed in by larger neighbors. Its population of 4.1 million is dwarfed by 17 million Kazakstanis, 23 million Uzbekistanis, 54 million Iranians, and 180 million Russians. With neighbors like that, it's prudent to stay neutral.

Unlike Switzerland, the country is only potentially wealthy. Its natural-gas reserves are the world's fifth-largest, but they are underdeveloped and blocked by Russia from export to Western Europe. The average monthly wage in Turkmenistan is $10. The government rations irregular deliveries of cheap bread.

That has not prevented Mr. Niyazov from chasing after Geneva's glamour. Foreign contractors have built a new international airport in Ashkhabad. Government buildings are adding layers of marble. Turkish firms hired by the government have put up 18 new luxury hotels outside the capital with names like the Grand Royal Turkmen. Six more are under construction.

"What that means for the future, God only knows. How much appetite is there in the world for Genevas to come to?" asks a foreigner based here.

For now, most of the $150-a-night-suites stand empty. But if the hordes of diplomats and tourists anticipated by the government ever show, they are assured the use of pool and sauna.

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