An April report on human rights conditions in Turkmenistan suggests the international community can exert pressure on Ashgabat to ease up on its totalitarian practices by playing on the country's "dependence" on energy exports. Political analysts, however, doubt that such a strategy can be effective, given the recent consolidation of Russian-Turkmen relations, in particular an expansive energy purchase deal.
The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, in a report titled "Turkmenistan: The Making of a Failed State," detailed a wide array of rights abuses committed by President Saparmurat Niyazov's administration. It said Niyazov presided over "repressive state machinery" that had "demolished all attributes of a democratic state."
In terms of religious life, Turkmenistan was among the world's most "restrictive countries," the report said. The government took a similarly hostile stance towards the non-governmental sector. "Only a small number of NGOs operate in semi-secrecy," the report said. "They are under constant risk of harassment from security services and [NGO activists] live in permanent danger of imprisonment."
For those running afoul of Turkmen authorities, "torture and ill-treatment of detainees is more the rule than the exception," the Helsinki Federation report maintained.
In seeking to promote improvement in Turkmenistan's human rights behavior, the report urged the international community to pursue a policy of engagement, rather than of isolation. "Turkmenistan's dependence on the export of petroleum and gas offers opportunities for international pressure on the country's repressive regime," the report concluded.
Several Turkmenistan experts interviewed by EurasiaNet did not share the Helsinki Federation's view that energy policy could be used to compel Turkmenistan to improve its rights record. The expansion of Russian-Turkmen economic relations over the past year goes a long way towards shielding Niyazov from such pressure, they contend.
The most significant deal between Russia and Turkmenistan is a 25-year gas purchase agreement that could net Moscow upwards of $350 billion and Ashgabat $150 billion over the life of the pact, said Najia Badykova, a former Turkmen government foreign trade expert. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The purchase agreement, concluded during visit Niyazov made to Moscow in April 2003 and buttressed by a broad bilateral economic cooperation pact signed in February in Ashgabat, means steadily deepening Russian influence in Turkmenistan, says Badykova. It also reflects Niyazov's political dependence on Russia and gives Moscow a vested interest in the political status quo, added Badykova, a former Fulbright scholar and currently a research associate at George Washington University. "Russia can not and does not want to bring democracy to Turkmenistan," she said. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
For Moscow, there is a geopolitical element to its expansion of ties with Turkmenistan. "They [Russian leaders] understand Turkmenistan is in an important place in Central Asia
Ken Stier is a freelance journalist who has reported from throughout the Caucasus and Asia.