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Turkmenistan Weekly Roundup

The consortium of companies that support the Nabucco pipeline has once again announced a postponement of the start of construction to 2013, citing a lack of supply contracts, Asia Times reported. They include RWE (Germany); OMV (Austria); MOL (Hungary); Transgaz (Romania); Bulgargaz (Bulgaria); and BOTAS (Turkey). Gas may not be pumped until 2017, and it is not clear which countries will ultimately be on board as suppliers. Azerbaijan has not yet committed the Shah Deniz II gas fields, and Turkmenistan, while seeming to warm to the prospect in the last year, has said nothing concrete either. Indeed, it has mainly been foreigners who have been most upbeat at what they saw as the prospect of Caspian countries participating in the grand plan to circumvent Russia's energy corridors.

But the first part of the eventual Nabucco route would be the Trans-Caspian pipeline, to be laid underneath the Caspian Sea from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, and this seems more feasible in the short term. Last week, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov made a state visit to Romania to meet with Romanian President Traian Basescu, and made some of his most promising statements to date in support of the Trans-Caspian project, ultimately to supply the European Union’s customers. The Turkmen leader also expressed interest in the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Romania Interconnector (AGRI), trend.az reported. In a joint statement with the Romanian leader, Berdymukhamedov affirmed the importance of delivering Turkmen gas to Europe, including through projects that are a priority for Romania, including AGRI. AGRI will start with gas from Azerbaijan, which will be liquefied and brought in tankers to the Romanian port of Constanta, and then turned back into gas and piped to other areas of Romania and Europe. Turkmenistan could supply gas to Azerbaijan to be transited further to Europe. Basescu also signed an agreement with Berdymukhamedov for a partnership of the ports of Constanta and Turkmenbashi, with plans to develop further the Turkmenbashi infrastructure.

Of course, for all of this to really happen, Ashgabat has to resolve its dispute with Baku over the demarcation of the Caspian Sea bed border between them. Here, too, the Turkmen leader sounded quite promising, stressing that “the political will of the participating parties, which should be framed as an agreement between the EU, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, is an important condition for mutually beneficial energy cooperation." No word yet on how this will actually move forward, but there have already been talks between the two Caspian neighbors to bridge their differences. President Berdymukhamedov also held out the prospect to Romania, a member of the EU, of offshore Caspian development -- no foreign companies except China have onshore rights.

Most likely the European Parliament will vote for ratification of the Partnership Cooperation Agreement in June, and clear the way for the EU to normalize relations and engage in trade and investment, including in the Caspian pipeline projects.

Anticipation of the trade agreement and improving relations may be the explanation why Sweden, an EU member, inexplicably failed to grant asylum to a Turkmen national who appealed for refugee status this week, and ordered his deportation. Keymir Berdiev had spent a decade abroad in Russia and found his way to Sweden, and while other countries in the EU have granted Turkmen dissidents asylum, and are bound by international agreements not to return people to likely torture, the Swedish migration authorities reportedly rejected the appeal. Human Rights Watch called the deportation order "appalling," and said Sweden had all the background information it needed in fact to make a favorable ruling, given the rampant human rights violations in Turkmenistan and cases of other returning emigres jailed immediately upon return.

This week, Turkmenistan faced some hard questions from the UN Committee against Torture, where it was making its first periodic appeal since signing the Convention against Torture after it gained independence in 1991. The report filed by the Turkmen ministries was abstract and incomplete, without any indication of actual conditions in confinement and mention of any statistics or cases. The UN experts drilled the Turkmen delegation for two days on a wide variety of problems, from missing ministers who fell from favor or were charged with alleged coup-plots and disappeared in the prison system, to disturbing deaths in the armed services to overcrowding and horrible conditions in the women's colony in the desert. Ashgabat sent a fairly low-level delegation of deputies of various agencies, and packed it with the international affairs people who usually soothe foreign concerns with explanations that they are "bringing legislation into conformity with international standards".

Felice Gaer, the US member of CAT, queried the delegation about threats made against Farid Tuhbatullin, a leading Turkmen émigré human rights advocate and editor of the web site chrono-tm.org, but received no answer. She also asked about the Berdievs, a husband and wife who have been detained and tortured numerous times, citing a letter that appeared to acknowledge their cruel mistreatment from authorities, but the delegation claimed it was forged. In general, the Turkmen officials had little to say in reply to the many direct questions from the experts. " There were no statistics such as ‘this many people arrested, investigated, freed or punished.’ Nothing," Gaer told EurasiaNet. The UN committee will release conclusions in the coming weeks, and follow up on some of the most severe problems with Ashgabat.

Human rights groups who filed alternative reports to the UN body hope their concerns will influence the European Parliament's decision on the PCA. Veronika Szente Goldston, Human Rights Watch’s advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia said it would be “absurd” for the EU to ratify the PCA “right on the heels” of the CAT review and urged the committee to call on the Turkmen government to take “immediate” action, including the release of political prisoners, and to conduct of transparent investigations into allegations of torture. “It would send a terrible message. What the EU should do instead is seize upon the review … and to really use [its] leverage with the Turkmen government to impress upon [Turkmen leaders] the importance of implementing [CAT] recommendations,” she told EurasiaNet.

While a presidential amnesty to coincide with a holiday took place, it was unclear how many were released, and it appeared no prisoners of conscience were among them. One case of concern was resolved right before the CAT hearing. Bisengul Begedesinov, leader of the ethnic Kazakh community in Turkmenistan, had unexpectedly been charged with fraud and bribery, but received a suspended sentence. There are about 90,000 ethnic Kazakhs in Turkmenistan; thousands have left in an official repatriation process organized by Astana.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Turkmenistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Sifting the Karakum blog. To subscribe to the weekly email with a digest of international and regional press, write turkmenistan@sorosny.org

Turkmenistan Weekly Roundup

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