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In the fall, former prime minister Jean Chrétien slipped into Ashkhabad, capital of one of the world's most repressive and authoritarian regimes, for a meeting with Turkmenistan's president for life, Saparmurat Niyazov.

Mr. Chrétien met for close to an hour with the onetime Communist strongman who prefers to be known as Turkmenbashi the Great, leader of a personality cult so extensive that statues of his likeness dot the capital and the months of the year have been renamed in honour of him and his family.

Mr. Chrétien, in his new role as counsel for the Calgary law firm of Bennett Jones, was accompanied at the meeting by his client, Roger Haines, a Calgary oilman anxious to gain a foothold in the oil-rich Central Asian nation.

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In January, Mr. Chrétien's lobbying efforts on behalf of Mr. Haines were rewarded. Buried Hill Energy, a newly minted oil-and-gas firm headed by Mr. Haines, was granted rights to the Serdar oil-and-gas concession by Turkmenistan in a potentially oil-rich part of the Caspian Sea.

It looked like another success for Mr. Chrétien, who has been crisscrossing the world since leaving office, often on behalf of Canadian resource companies.

He has travelled to China, Russia and Niger. He has frequently visited Kazakhstan, as an adviser to PetroKazakhstan Inc., a Calgary-based oil firm.

But his foray into Turkmenistan, which has been unreported until now, is the most controversial.

Human-rights advocates question why Mr. Chrétien would even think of going to Turkmenistan in the first place.

Turkmenistan is "unbelievably awful," said Rachel Denbar, acting executive director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, the advocacy group. "It's up there with North Korea and Burma. It has literally stripped its population of every essential civil and political freedom."

Ms. Denbar said that Western government leaders generally avoid the country and that Mr. Chrétien "of all people, should know" of Turkmenistan's awful human-rights regime.

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In fact, the website of Canada's Foreign Affairs Ministry states categorically that "Turkmenistan has one of the worst human-rights records in the world and it continues to deteriorate. . . ."

The department made it clear that Mr. Chrétien was acting in his private capacity when he visited Ashkhabad in September, and that he was not accompanied by any Canadian government officials.

There are other negative rumblings about the deal Mr. Chrétien helped to broker.

The oil concession granted to Mr. Haines, for instance, sits in waters that are also claimed by Turkmenistan's neighbour, Azerbaijan, which immediately cried foul.

"This is our deposit. We discovered it, we prospected for oil there and we intend to develop it on our own," according to a senior official from Socar, Azerbaijan's state oil company, which even has a different name for the concession: Kyapaz.

Azerbaijan's newly opened embassy in Ottawa has protested against the Canadian company's actions and warned that any agreements to explore the deposit made with Turkmenistan is "null and void."

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The dispute, which has been simmering for years, is one of the sharpest in the oil-rich Caspian, whose waters are shared among five neighbouring countries that have been feuding about dividing the sea since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Turkmenians have reacted by warning the Azerbaijanis to mind their own business, accusing them of "the double standards that have become popular [in the West] and warning ominously that their actions could lead to "a boomerang effect."

A spokeswoman for the Foreign Affairs Department said Canada has not taken any position in the border dispute and hopes it can be resolved between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan in a peaceful manner.

She added that Canada has raised "serious concerns" about Turkmenistan's human-rights record through the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and that Canada's relations with the country are "very limited."

Mr. Niyazov was clearly thrilled with Mr. Chrétien's visit. According to the stilted language of the official Turkmenian government website, Mr. Chrétien lauded Turkmenistan for choosing "the strikingly right way that promoted achieving the present great results.

"The ex-premier of Canada said that we have managed to work out the optimum model of the socioeconomic development of the country, taking into consideration its great natural potential and advantageous geopolitical position," the website glowed.

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A lawyer with Bennett Jones who travelled with Mr. Chrétien to Ashkhabad confirmed that Mr. Chrétien was in the country for two days and one night but couldn't confirm that he had spoken in those terms.

"The experience in Turkmenistan was very positive and the government was very hospitable and received us in a very positive and businesslike manner," the lawyer said. He added that Mr. Chrétien has "no pre-existing relationship" with Mr. Niyazov and had never met him before.

Under Canadian conflict-of-interest rules, Mr. Chrétien must abide by a two-year cooling-off period after leaving office, but the restrictions apply only to taking jobs with companies with which he had"direct and significant" official dealings in his final year in office.

As for the Serdar concession, the lawyer said that "we're very much at the early stages," and no definitive agreement has been arrived at.

He said the company that was granted the concession, Buried Hill Energy Turkmenistan, is not a Canadian company and that it has different investors from Buried Hill Energy Canada, a Calgary-based firm, although Mr. Haines is involved in both. Mr. Haines was reportedly travelling and was not available for an interview.

Bob Eber, program director of the Caspian Energy Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank said an oil company like Buried Hill should be "very reluctant" to go ahead with exploration in the Serdar field because of its uncertain ownership.

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"I would really advise against getting involved in this particular field," he said.

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