Turkish President Abdullah Gul met with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on November 12 in the Caspian resort city of Turkmenbashi, state and regional media reported. The Turkmen leader said relations between the two countries "have a great future," especially given the trade turnover of more than $2 billion this year, with 600 Turkish companies registered in Turkmenistan. Currently 2,260 Turkmen students are studying in Turkey.
President Gul said that Turkey is now Turkmenistan's largest trading partner in terms of volume and direct investments, with the total volume of business now about $19 billion, turkishweekly.net reported. Turkish investments are more than $1.5 billion, the Turkish leader said. President Berdymukhamedov offered to create a free-enterprise zone for Turkish business, similar to those established in Cairo, Egypt, regnum.ru reported. President Berdymukhamedov said that trade turnover went from $2.27 billion last year to $2.35 billion this year, and invited Turkish businesses to invest not only in construction but also industry, metals, agriculture, communications and technology. Turkey has assisted Ashgabat in renovating the capital and other cities and has also been involved in the development of Avaza, the Turkmen president's pet project.
On November 12, the Technical Working Group for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline met in Ashgabat. Specialists from the four countries along with officers of the Asian Bank for Development attended the meeting. Pakistan presented a proposal for gas pipeline security on its territory, and Turkmenistan provided information on its resource base to supply the pipeline and reviewed issues regarding gas sales. The TAPI agreement is to be finalized in December at a meeting of heads of states, but first one more working group session will take place in early December.
Deputy foreign ministers of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan also met November 12 in Ashgabat to discuss both bilateral and multilateral issues, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry announced. Kazakhstan is winding up a year of chairing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) by convening a summit in Astana of the 54 OSCE member states. Turkmenistan was unhappy that several Turkmen activists living in exile, including Farid Tuhbatullin, head of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) were finally admitted to OSCE review conferences in Warsaw and Vienna, despite Ashgabat's objections. The Turkmen leadership threatened to boycott the Astana summit if the human rights activists were registered. Western diplomats protested, and eventually the human rights activists were seated.
Since then, Turkmenistan hasn't said whether it will make good on its threat. The Kazakh Foreign Ministry statement did not mention the issue, yet it has not yet issued a visa to Turkmen activists seeking to attend meetings in Astana. In Warsaw, Kazakh diplomats informally implied that their security could not be guaranteed.
In October, death threats were made against Tuhbatullin, reportedly conveyed from the Turkmen Ministry of Security. The International Social Ecological Union (ISEU), a non-governmental organization based in Moscow with membership around the world, wrote a public appeal in defense of Tuhbatullin, noting that if the international community did not come to his defense, more pressure could be expected on other activists. The ISEU called on the European Union to refrain from signing a trade agreement with Turkmenistan, now under review, and called international financial institutions not to invest in Turkmenistan until "significant changes are made in the area of human rights."
Despite certain reforms launched by President Berdymukhamedov, Turkmenistan has failed to move on long-standing cases of political prisoners. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention recently called on the Turkmen government to release Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khadzhiev, two members of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation arrested in June 2006 along with Ogulsapar Muradova, a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. All three were arrested and charged for providing a French media company and other foreign media with information about Turkmenistan. Muradova subsequently died in detention and her death was never investigated. The two other activists were sentenced to seven years of imprisonment. A Washington-based organization Freedom Now and the law firm Hogan Lovells petitioned the UN to take up the cases of the two men, as their trial violated international standards of due process.
The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) reports that school-children are exploited to pick cotton in Turkmenistan, just as they are in neighboring Uzbekistan. Although formally, Turkmenistan bans the use of child labor, the government requires teachers to turn out to help with the harvest, and they in turn send high school students in their place. Local authorities look the other way so that they can meet state quotas.
TIHR also confirmed that a promised second political party has not yet materialized in Turkmenistan, although election nominations are now under way for local elections. First, a law on political parties would have to be passed in parliament to legalize any other parties, but work on the draft hasn't started yet.
A vexing problem for activists trying to track the use of Turkmenistan's considerable gas revenues in the state budget is the failure of Ashgabat ever to publish the national budget in full. The rubber-stamp parliament does not have the power of the purse, and appears only to acknowledge decisions already made by the presidential administration and various government agencies. At a cabinet meeting on November 12, Vice Premier Tuvakmamed Japarov shed a little light on the subject by announcing that the government expects to invest more in the social and cultural sector, because of the increase in GDP which he explained will come "from anticipated income from foreign ventures." He didn’t cite any specific sources or amounts, but said that in 2011, some 75 percent of the state budget in Turkmenistan will reportedly go to education, science, health, culture, and social services, supposedly a 28.3 percent increase over the 2010 budget.
More investments will be made in science to reform this sector and "restore the role of science and innovation" in Turkmenistan's development, said Japarov. An increase of 20.7 will be made on health care and 35.4 on social services. The problem with these claims is not only that we cannot see the total amount and the line items, the nature of the expenditures is not necessarily a boon to actual people's welfare. In recent years, the Turkmen government has spent lavishly on a state-of-the-art cancer center in the capital, for example, but only a carefully-chosen elite can make use of it. The government builds ostentatious parks with water fountains and box gardens personally designed by the president, then books this cost to "social welfare" for people who supposedly benefit from strolling in the guarded parks. In the provinces, expenses for folk museums and racetracks can be called "socio-cultural programs" although local people themselves don't have a say in these projects, and are left without decent housing and schools. Mostly what people in Turkmenistan need are jobs with better salaries, not more buildings.