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Repression and Regression in Turkmenistan: A New International Strategy
Repression and Regression in Turkmenistan: A New International Strategy
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
What the EU Should Expect from Turkmenistan
What the EU Should Expect from Turkmenistan
Report 85 / Europe & Central Asia

Repression and Regression in Turkmenistan: A New International Strategy

Sapamurad Niyazov's Turkmenistan, one of the world's most repressive regimes, has not responded to quiet diplomacy, modifying a few policies only when faced with a threat of sanctions or other punitive action.

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Executive Summary

Sapamurad Niyazov's Turkmenistan, one of the world's most repressive regimes, has not responded to quiet diplomacy, modifying a few policies only when faced with a threat of sanctions or other punitive action. In failing to take a strong stand against widespread human rights abuses and the plundering of the country's wealth, the international community has prioritised short term economic and security benefits. Given the longer-term risks of serious instability if the trends are not reversed, however, a firmer line is needed. International organisations and concerned governments should forge agreement on a list of key reform benchmarks and start working much more actively for real change.

Heavy ideological indoctrination and destruction of the education system suggest that Turkmenistan’s problems will not end whenever Niyazov leaves the scene. The economy is becoming brittle, despite oil and gas, and the eventual political succession could well be violent.

Since an alleged assassination attempt on him in 2002, there has been increased repression, and the president has further concentrated power in his own hands. He controls the political system absolutely and has introduced the cult of his personality, through his quasi-spiritual guide, the Ruhnama, into every aspect of life. He has personal use of revenue from lucrative oil and gas reserves, and much of the money goes into grandiose construction projects. No opposition political activity is permitted, there is no independent media, and increased pressure has forced most NGOs to close.

Although Turkmenistan has huge gas reserves, misuse of revenue threatens long-term economic stability. Budgetary problems have already forced cuts in health and social services. Much of the population lives in poverty, while a small elite earns vast incomes from the energy sector. The private sector is very small, the agricultural sector is in crisis, and perhaps a majority of young people are unemployed.

A reform of the education system has cut schooling opportunities and introduced an array of ideological courses that restrict the chances of children. Higher education is increasingly difficult to obtain and is limited to two years. An increasingly ill-educated, ideologically indoctrinated generation will be unprepared to take on responsibilities.

The decline of state institutions and lack of unity within the political elite virtually ensure that succession will be difficult. There is a strong possibility of internal dissent and possibly violence around a struggle for power. Since much of the population one way or another is highly dependent on the state, even a short period of disorder could lead to a real humanitarian crisis.

The international response to Turkmenistan has been weak and poorly coordinated. Niyazov has successfully played different states and organisations against each other. Russia is his most influential partner because almost all gas exports pass through its pipelines but its response to repeated humiliations of Russian government officials and overt discrimination against ethnic Russians has been remarkably weak. A few parliamentarians have spoken out against Niyazov but mostly the lure of cheap gas has kept Moscow silent about the worst abuses.

The U.S. has been more critical but its stance has been made ambiguous by its security and geopolitical interests. The EU has increased aid and is talking about engagement with the regime, apparently without conditioning these steps on policy changes.

International organisations have also sent mixed signals. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) appointed a special rapporteur, but his hard-hitting report has not been followed up with strong action. NATO has expanded cooperation in 2004 despite the incompatibility of regime behaviour with its democratic principles. Several UN agencies have been reluctant to criticise the regime but UN human rights bodies have begun to take a stronger stance that deserves support and follow-up.

Most international financial institutions have cut involvement to a minimum, as the regime refuses to consider any economic reform, but foreign businesses continue to get support from their governments while investing in lucrative projects which promote the president's cult of personality.

Osh/Brussels, 4 November 2004

Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

What the EU Should Expect from Turkmenistan

Originally published in EUobserver

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.