Last week, the 12th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was held in Beijing, convening the presidents of the six SCO member countries (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), as well as the presidents of Afghanistan, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan. The summit participants issued statements opposing military intervention in Syria and Iran, condemning the deployment of US and NATO missile defense systems in Europe, and declaring the SCO’s readiness to intensify its role in stabilizing Afghanistan in light of the upcoming withdrawal of NATO forces. In a final declaration, participants praised themselves, stating that the SCO "continues to operate successfully in the interests of peace, cooperation and development."
The summit provided President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov with an opportunity to meet with his counterparts in the region and promote Turkmenistan’s aspirations to be a player in the regional, and perhaps world, arena. He held bilateral talks with President Hu Jintao of China, which focused, inter alia, on the transit of energy resources to world markets and on other potential areas for Chinese-Turkmen cooperation, primarily in trade. The Turkmen leader also met with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, expressing intentions to enhance Turkmen-Iranian cooperation. At a meeting with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, Berdymukhamedov discussed in detail the construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline.
At the summit President Berdymukhamedov announced that Turkmenistan is “open for constructive discussion of energy projects and developing joint plans,” which was the main motif of his meetings with other world leaders, or at least what was declared in public statements. He made his announcement shortly after the signing of a deal for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline (TAPI) to supply up to 90 million cubic meters of natural gas a day, likely suggesting that Turkmenistan, with its ample reserves, is eager to take on other lucrative arrangements as well. One of those options, however, seems to be off the table: the Nabucco pipeline, which was to supply gas to Europe. In April Hungary’s MOL, decided to abandon the project, and was later followed by British Petrolium and Germany’s RWE.
Cooperation with China, with its billions of dollars of soft loans, has become a priority for Turkmenistan. However, the West is a promising client, and Berdymukhamedov seems to be keen to burnish his country’s image and court potential cooperation. Last week, Berdymukhamedov allowed another Red Cross delegation to visit the country last week, the fifth Red Cross delegation to visit Turkmenistan in the last 12 months. These previous trips however did not open up Turkmenistan’s “real” prisons where some of the most egregious human rights violations have taken and continue to take place, where prisoners of conscience continue to languish, and where journalists have died. But rather they showed a juvenile correction facility and a medical dispensary for alcoholics. And this visit, according to the semi-official turkmenistan.ru website, the delegation simply “held talks at a number of ministries and departments, including the Turkmen National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights under the President of Turkmenistan and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and discussed humanitarian cooperation issues.” To this day, Turkmenistan has not allowed an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death in prison of journalist Ogulsapar Muradova, in spite of international outcry.
Turkmenistan’s prisons have also opened their doors to some former officials fallen from grace either under past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov or under Berdymukhamedov, including the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Boris Shikhmuradov, the former Prosecutor General, Gurbanbibi Atajanova, the former chairman of Turkmenistan’s Parliament, Ovesgeldy Ataev, the former Minister of Culture, Enebai Ataeva, and many others. Niyazov regularly punished his subordinates, if not with imprisonment, with public reprimands and dismissal from office. Berdymukhamedov continues this tradition, regularly reshuffling his cabinet, firing and publically berating various officials. Several weeks ago he fired the Minister of Oil and Gas Industry, Bairamgeldi Nedirov, despite the seemingly dynamic development of this sector, and last week he issued a strict reprimand to the Chairman of the State Migration Service of Turkmenistan, Dovrangeldi Bayramov.
That disciplinary measure was taken only days after Berdymukhamedov approved a draft resolution 'On improvement of State Migration Service's Activity.’ It is unclear what the Turkmen leader sees as “improvement” in this area, as the new law “On Migration” adopted earlier this year contains a number of provisions severely restricting freedom of movement and giving officials a significant degree of discretion in deciding whether to allow people into – or out of – the country. Lately, it seems to be much more difficult to enter Turkmenistan: employees of Russian travel agencies say that 98% of Turkmen visa applications are denied, Kazakh truck drivers have to wait in long lines before they enter the country, and last week it was reported that Turkmen border guards are not allowing Uzbek citizens to cross the border to visit their relatives in Turkmenistan. The new law gives the officials even more power to restrict entry into the country, even though the ability to enter and exit the country seems to be regulated arbitrarily; those Uzbek citizens turned away at the border were not even given an explanation for why.
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