President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov made a two-day state visit to Uzbekistan May 5-6, reciprocating a visit made by Uzbek President Islam Karimov to Turkmenistan in October 2010. The Turkmen leader was met at the airport by Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev, Foreign Minister Elyor Ganiev and others, and was greeted by President Islam Karimov the next morning. The visit was covered by the state-controlled media in both countries with the maximum amount of boilerplate stressing "age-old ties of friendship, brotherhood and spiritual kinship" and "mutual commitment to a strategy of full cooperation," but it was not clear what the two Central Asian leaders really talked about or whether they were overcoming their age-old antagonisms.
According to the official version of the story, the leaders discussed their bilateral cooperation, establishing trade representative offices in each other's countries and working in an intergovernmental commission on agriculture, modernization, and land reclamation, and on regional cooperation, in such projects as the transit corridor just agreed by Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Oman and Qatar. They also expressed the concerns they share with the international community about "attempts to disseminate extremist ideology in the region" and narcotics and sex trafficking, arms smuggling and other trans-national crime.
Likely they avidly discussed the war in Afghanistan, following the sensational killing of long-sought Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, although Uzbekistan's state media covered the news of the US Navy SEALs raid on the bin Laden compound only sketchily, after two days, and Turkmenistan's even heavily-controlled media seems not to have mentioned the assassination at all. President Berdymukhamedov reiterated that Turkmenistan is ready to provide its good offices for convening peace talks under the aegis of the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia and both leaders reaffirmed what they've said many times before -- that they would prefer a political rather than a military solution to the challenges presented by their war-torn neighbor.
Tashkent has also long sought to get Ashgabat on its side in the region's water and energy wars, but nothing in the official communiques touched on the water conflict between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan has cut off electricity to Tajikistan for non-payment at times, and in the past, Turkmenistan gave Tajikistan power at discount rates, as it continues to do for Afghanistan. Uzbekistan interrupted the flow of Turkmen electricity to Tajikistan, in 2009, however. Due to the dispute over the construction of the Roghun hydropower station, which Tashkent fears will reduce its water flow as a downstream country, no agreement has been reached between Dushanbe and Tashkent about the transmission of Turkmen electricity via Uzbekistan to Tajikistan, as Michael J.G. Cain reported in January 2011 in the Washington Review of Turkish & Eurasian Affairs.
Whatever their close cultural and historical ties, the two Central Asian leaders seem to regard each other with suspicion. In January, Turkmenistan tightened up regulations for cross-border travel of relatives and religious believers seeking to visit holy sites, and has once again moved its ethnic Uzbek population even further from the border shared between the two countries.
President Berdymukhamedov received Helen Clark, Under-Secretary-General and Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Jens Wandel, UNDP Deputy Regional Bureau Director for Europe and the CIS, the State News Agency of Turkmenistan (TDH) reported. The UN official praised Turkmenistan as a "reliable partner" due to its "constructive domestic and foreign policies" and noted that Turkmenistan now sits on three UN commissions -- on population, development, and narcotics control. While in Ashgabat, Clark presided over the opening of a new Information Center for Human Rights -- under the auspices of the Presidential Turkmen National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights. The center is financially supported by UNDP, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the EU.
The high-level UN attention to this heavily-controlled presidential center may have sent a contradictory signal to the Turkmen regime just at the time when another part of the UN, the Committee Against Torture, responsible for periodic assessing countries' compliance with the Convention Against Torture, is preparing to address Turkmenistan's notorious record of torture, deaths, and disappearances in prison.
Ivar Dale, advisor to the Norwegian Helsinki Committee on Central Asian affairs, told EurasiaNet he has suggested a test to determine how authentic the new human rights center will be: whether or not it will distribute the submissions to CAT made by a half dozen NGOs, including his own, on the abysmal conditions in Turkmenistan's prisons and its lack of judicial and medical remedies. CAT itself places the NGO reports on the official UN website.
In time for the CAT meet May 17-18, Dale's organization has published a report that provides a rare glimpse into the highly closed Turkmen penitentiary system, focusing on the Dashoguz Women's Colony, a facility in the desert holding some 2,000 women, with extreme temperatures, overcrowding, inadequate food and clothing, and mistreatment of inmates. Turkmen authorities often practice family retribution in pursuing enemies of the regime -- in a number of cases, when an official is arrested, his wife and other family members will also be brought in for questioning and tortured. Sometimes they are then sentenced to jail as well, such as Guzel Atayeva, the wife of Ovezgeldy Atayev, the head of the parliament, who would have been in line for succession as head of state under the old Turkmen constitution after Niyazov's death, had President Berdymukhamedov not engineered his own accession to power.
The Turkmen government’s official report to CAT consists mainly of recitations of laws and abstract principles rather than reports on actual implementation of the laws. Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, which has also submitted a report on the prison system to CAT, has said that the incarceration rate is 534 per 100,000 people, which could mean that there are as many as 24,500 people in prison out of the population of 4.6 million. Yet the numbers are not officially stated, and with constant arrests and then constant amnesties of several thousand people on every state holiday, it’s hard to determine the totals. Added to the cases of torture in prison are mistreatment in other kinds of facilities such as psychiatric hospitals, where dissidents have been held as in the Soviet era, and cruel hazing in the armed services, which has led to deaths and suicides of recruits.
Freedom House reported that this year press freedom around the world is "at its lowest ebb," and while it seems it could no go no lower, Turkmenistan was reported to have even worse practices, and was listed among the "ten worst countries" regarding suppression of the media on May 3, World Press Freedom Day -- alongside the likes of North Korea, Libya, Cuba, and Myanmar. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) marked the press freedom day with its own list of "predators of the press," where President Berdymukhamedov was also listed in the world rogues' gallery with Qaddafi and other tyrants.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org