EU: No Trade Agreement for Turkmenistan
EU: No Trade Agreement for Turkmenistan
What the EU Should Expect from Turkmenistan
What the EU Should Expect from Turkmenistan

EU: No Trade Agreement for Turkmenistan

Dear Member of Parliament,

We are writing to express our profound concern regarding Monday’s vote in the Foreign Affairs Committee on the Draft Opinion on the proposal for a Council and Commission decision on the Interim Agreement between the EC and Turkmenistan on trade and trade-related matters. The EU has rightly abstained from concluding an interim agreement with Turkmenistan for seven years because of the government’s singularly abysmal human rights record, which the European Parliament decried in its 23 October 2003 Resolution on Turkmenistan. Because this record remains unchanged, now is not the time to endorse the conclusion of an Interim Agreement.  

We find that the justifications presented in the Draft Opinion of the Foreign Affairs Committee and in the INTA Draft Report are in no way sufficient to merit a vote in favour of the proposal. For example, the concern raised about isolating Turkmenistan is simply nonsensical: President Niyazov has gone to great lengths to create one of the most repressive and closed regimes in the world. The isolation of Turkmenistan is not a result of any action taken, or not taken, by the international community, but by the Turkmen leadership itself. The EU Interim Agreement is unlikely to persuade Niyazov to depart from this extreme path, nor will it result in making the government more democratic or respectful of basic human rights, as is hoped in the Draft Opinion. President Niyazov has amply demonstrated that he has no interest in such a course.  

We further contest your assessment that there have been steps in the right direction that would justify the consideration of trade links with the country.

The general amnesty is an annual occurrence that almost always excludes prisoners of conscience and political prisoners. Amnesties do not demonstrate the government’s intent to comply with its international human rights obligations, but rather appear to be an important tool for maintaining the loyalty of law enforcement officials, through graft. Desperate relatives pay bribes to ensure the early release of their loved ones. The annual prison releases therefore generate enormous revenues for prison and law-enforcement officials. Meanwhile, the government of Turkmenistan continues to hold political prisoners and denies access to them by the International Committee for the Red Cross. Torture is rampant in police custody and detention facilities.  

The law banning child labour is, of course, a welcome step, but, as was the case in the Soviet era, many Turkmen laws protect human rights, including the Constitution, but have almost no meaning in practice. And the visit by the OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities, whose work is confidential, does not begin to offset the government’s long-standing record of refusal to allow monitors from international organisations to visit the country and of overall non-cooperation with the international community.  

Any decision to conclude an Interim Agreement should be conditioned strictly on significant, measurable, and sustainable improvements in human rights conditions. While parts of the four « incipient signs of change» noted in the Draft Opinion are welcome, none of them--on their individual merits or in comparison with the government’s abysmal and deteriorating human rights record—could be considered adequate improvements. To accept them as such would not prod the government to change, but would instead squander EU influence and leverage. We would be pleased to engage with you in the coming weeks to share ideas on what steps would constitute such progress.  

Those who would benefit most from an Interim Agreement would be President Niyazov and his cronies in government running the energy monopoly in Turkmenistan, who will become ever richer, while the rest of the population suffers great economic hardship. In recent years this hardship has only worsened, as the government took regressive steps in social and economic development. President Niyazov’s recent statements suggesting that he is contemplating reducing or eliminating pensions for the elderly and their dependents may mean even greater privations.  

To vote in favour of the Interim Agreement would send entirely the wrong signal. It would indicate that the EU will bend its standards to overlook the most egregious human rights violations in the interests of securing future energy supplies. It would also fly in the face of, and risk seriously undermining, important efforts by others in the international community to convey a consistent and principled message to the Turkmen leadership on the need for tangible reform in exchange for engagement. In the years since the European Parliament first decided not to advance an Interim Agreement with Turkmenistan, the government has been censored for its human rights record by the United Nations, the OSCE, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The UN Commission on Human Rights and General Assembly adopted resolutions in 2003 and 2004 expressing strong concern about the serious human rights violations and lack of progress in key areas; the General Assembly’s Third Committee did the same in 2005. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development – an institution in which the EU is a majority shareholder – has suspended all public sector engagement with Turkmenistan over human rights concerns.  

In the interests of the EU’s credibility as a guarantor of human rights and democratic principles, as well as the interests of the people of Turkmenistan, we urge that the Committees on International Trade and Foreign Affairs refuse to endorse the conclusion of the Interim Agreement with Turkmenistan on trade and trade-related matters until such time as specific, measurable, and sustainable improvements designated by the Committee have been achieved.  

We therefore urge you to support Green MEP Cem Ozdemir’s amendment to the draft resolution recommending that the Committee on International Trade not give its approval to the conclusion of the Interim Agreement with Turkmenistan.  

We thank you for your attention to this important matter and trust that in making your decision you will ensure that the fundamental values of respect for human rights on which the European Union is founded are upheld.  

Sincerely,

Joanna Chellapermal, Central Asia Advocacy Officer, Christian Solidarity Worldwide  

Holly Cartner, Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch  

Nick Grono, Vice President for Advocacy, International Crisis Group

Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

What the EU Should Expect from Turkmenistan

Commission President Manuel Barroso and three senior European Commissioners received Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov in Brussels on Monday (5 November). Beyond the smiles and formal statements, one hopes they took the opportunity to remind the Turkmen leader that the EU's friendship has a price.

One year ago, the European Parliament's International Trade Committee made that price clear, setting out the conditions under which the EU would be willing to work with the Central Asian state. The Parliament would only give its approval to an Interim Trade Agreement "if concrete progress on the human rights situation is achieved".

About a month later, Turkemnistan was thrown into shock with the death of Turkmenbashi -- or "Father of All Turkmen", as the late president, Saparmurat Niyazov, forced an entire nation to call him.

With the passing of the megalomaniacal leader, there was a sliver of hope that a new team would pull the country in a more positive direction. Indeed, after Niyazov had ruined the education and public health sectors, chalked up an exceptional record of human rights abuses even in a region known for them, jailed thousands of political prisoners, and nearly destroyed the economy despite rich energy exports, Berdimuhammedov could hardly do much worse.

Sadly, however, one can so far see no trace of any significant improvements. Berdimuhammedov may not commission gold statues of himself or change the names of months in the calendar to match his as Niyazov did, but apart from avoiding these comical excesses, it is pretty much the same oppressive regime familiar from the Turkmenbashi days.

Some Western voices, overly eager for signs of anything positive, have been grasping at the most meagre of straws. The opening of a single internet café in Ashgabat was thus hailed as great progress -- ignoring, of course, its prohibitive price for customers in this poor country and the intensive effort the state makes to filter out outside internet sites, not to mention the soldiers stationed at its doorways.

Others point to the end-of-Ramadan release of 9000 prisoners as a sign of softening attitude towards the opposition, but the move was so sudden and random, it seems to have been almost a whim. And none of those set free is known to have been a political prisoner. Some former victims of political repression were allowed to flee the country, but that seems more an attempt to silence opposition within the country than a signal of any new freedom to travel abroad.

Still, the relatively fresh change of administration is an opportunity for the Europeans to seize. If handled smartly and consistently, renewed contacts with the Turkmen leadership could help produce some actual changes on the ground.

The EU must maintain its insistence on its basic conditions before there can be talk of signing an Interim Trade Agreement with Turkmenistan, the preparation of which was undoubtedly the goal of Berdimuhammedov's state visit as well as a step towards a full Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.

Discussion of a trade agreement suddenly came to a halt last year after the International Trade Committee of the European Parliament adopted the resolution outlining its basic conditions: the International Committee of the Red Cross should be allowed to work freely in Turkmenistan, the educational system should be realigned with international standards, all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience should be released, government restrictions on travel abroad should be abolished, independent NGOs should be allowed to work unhindered, and UN human rights bodies should be permitted to operate freely in the country to monitor any progress.

The conditions are clear, verifiable and easy to meet. The International Committee of the Red Cross can testify on their ability to work freely in Turkmenistan, as can UN agencies. Human rights organisations can provide detailed lists of political prisoners to be released.

There is absolutely no reason today to back down from these basic, indeed fairly minimal, conditions. A change of leadership is not enough.

By inviting Berdimuhammedov to Brussels, the EU showed it believes change is possible. Following this visit, it should be clear to Turkmenistan's president that the next step is his.

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