U.S. Nominee for Ambassador to Turkmenistan Testifies in Senate

Robert E. Patterson

Robert E. Patterson, President Barack Obama's nominee for U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan, testified in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 5.

He gave a careful and balanced testimony that was likely the result of a number of hands at the State Department to keep it on point for established U.S. policy for Central Asia.

Patterson led off with a frank statement of why Turkmenistan is so important to the U.S. (and, we could add, why it was such a travesty that this job has been left vacant for nearly five years):

A key U.S. priority in Central Asia is to encourage efforts to aid in the stabilization of Afghanistan. Turkmenistan shares a long border with Afghanistan and is aware of the danger that continuing instability there poses to itself and to other countries in the region. Turkmenistan has acted in accordance with its policy of “positive neutrality” to provide discounted electricity, housing, hospitals, and other forms of humanitarian aid to its Afghan neighbors.

Of course, Turkmenistan's "neutrality" can also be about the net effect of greeting the U.S. CENTCOM general one day, buying armaments from Russia another day, and friending Iranian diplomats to get a railroad built on yet another occasion -- all while suppressing the Uzbek minority in Turkmenistan. Even so, the international community appreciates that Ashgabat is trying to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem for Afghanistan.

Patterson then moved to that other reason why Turkmenistan is so important to the U.S. -- its enormous hydrocarbons reserves in a place that is "not Russia" and which is seeking to diversify its delivery routes away from Russian dependency. Patterson made clear where the U.S. stands -- in support of the European Union, and also helping U.S. oil companies enter the market in Turkmenistan (Chevron and others are still waiting for those promised offshore drilling permits -- and there's always that potential licorice business):

We continue to strongly encourage Turkmenistan to send its gas across the Caspian to Europe via the Southern Corridor. U.S. firms have the experience and a demonstrated track record in major energy projects, and, if confirmed, I would work hard to support their efforts to invest in projects in Turkmenistan, including projects like the Trans-Caspian Pipeline and TAPI. Our commercial relationship with Turkmenistan goes beyond its prominent energy sector, however. U.S. companies are active in various sectors of the Turkmen economy- ranging from agriculture to civil aviation. If confirmed, I will actively support U.S. firms and seek to expand economic ties with Turkmenistan, particularly in light of the President’s National Export Initiative.

Then, having weighed in on American's military and corporate concerns, the nominated ambassador got to human rights, which were packaged within the concept of the "Annual Bilateral Consultations" -- a process that has had two sessions so far and hasn't led to much visible progress -- although arguably permission for some Turkmen students studying in American-funded programs finally to go abroad may have been a result. As Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert O. Blake, Jr. noted in his recent speech in Ashgabat, the oblique invocation of the Middle Eastern revolutions is part of that dialogue:

As recent events have yet again demonstrated, respect for human rights, the rule of law, and transparent and accountable governmental institutions are essential to peace and long-term stability in any country. If confirmed, I will energetically engage the Government of Turkmenistan on the full range of human rights issues, including arbitrary detentions and arrests, limitations on freedom of movement and expression, allegations of torture and prisoner abuse, and human trafficking. A frank and detailed discussion of human rights concerns already has a prominent place in our Annual Bilateral Consultations with high-ranking Turkmenistan government representatives.

Yet what’s left out of the list -- although arguably it fits under "freedom of expression" -- is access to the Internet, increasingly seen as a kind of "freedom to connect" which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has invoked in her speeches on the subject. The U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat has done an impressive amount of work to move to the modern age through social media, making a Facebook page and a Youtube channel and such -- but these sites are blocked by the Turkmen government and it's not clear how many people inside Turkmenistan can actually reach them, especially now with the massive shutdown of this access for more than 2 million MTS customers.

Another topic left out is religious freedom -- and ironically, that's in part because there isn't any, so there don't tend to be the sorts of thousands of cases that we see in neighboring Uzbekistan, where conditions are slightly more free. Even so, there is the chronic failure to reform the religion law, and cases of both Christians and Muslims operating outside state control who appear to have been unjustly tried and sentenced. The State Department postponed publicizing its "Countries of Particular Concern" last year when its report on international religious freedom was released, and the announcement is still awaited to see if Turkmenistan has been included, as has been recommended by the bi-partisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Patterson added that he would make “other contacts with the Turkmen government in the future, to discuss important human rights issues” and will likely address these topics, albeit with the quiet diplomacy that has been the hallmark of this administration's human rights policy in Central Asia.

A few more weeks will likely be required before Patterson is finally confirmed. First, he must be voted on by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then his nomination will come to the floor of the full Senate. Given the current preoccupation with a possible government shutdown, this process could be delayed.

U.S. Nominee for Ambassador to Turkmenistan Testifies in Senate

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