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Turkmenistan Weekly Roundup

The European Parliament sent a delegation to Turkmenistan April 26-29 to perform a fact-finding mission on the situation of human rights, eurasianet.org reported. The visit was a prelude to a parliamentary vote coming up in June to sign a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), which will replace the Interim Trade Agreement now in place. While signed back in 1998, the PCA was not ratified due to grave concerns about Turkmenistan's human rights record under past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov. After his death in 2006 and the coming to power of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the European Union was hopeful that reforms might begin in earnest, and has taken the pledge of transformation of the autocratic system as sufficient to begin greater engagement. Of course, the need to lessen energy dependence on Russia -- felt by both the EU and Turkmenistan -- is paramount in the relationship, and at times human rights have taken a back seat.

Heidi Hautala, a Finnish member of the European Parliament and chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights said that the PCA ratification is "a test-case of how the European Parliament can give serious scrutiny" to an international agreement and that it "creates a precedent for how Parliament will monitor" the future PCAs in Turkmenistan and elsewhere in Central Asia.

But if the threshold for disengagement were really invoked, the PCA wouldn't even pass a vote today, say human rights activists. The argumentation for finalizing the PCA is not really about the actual state of affairs existing -- or perceived -- in Turkmenistan, but a belief about how improvements there might actually be effected. Such a position reasons that engagement with Turkmenistan across the board on energy and trade issues will enhance the context for raising democracy issues. Yet that argument is undermined by the precedent now of a similar case made for engaging with Kazakhstan and granting Astana its bid for the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Kazakhstan promised reforms to gain the coveted chair, then failed to deliver, and even backslid – maintaining President Nursultan Nazarbayev in office in highly flawed elections.

There's another precedent now for such bad-faith arrangements with Central Asia, and that's the re-engagement with Uzbekistan by the US and EU for the sake of not only energy but the Northern Distribution Network which sustains NATO's war in Afghanistan. Closer relations with Tashkent may have lead to the resolution of a few political prisoners' cases or lessening of sentences but if anything, the closure of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) office and new pressures on human rights activists indicate the severe limits of the engagement gambit.

Although groups like the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, the Turkmen Lawyers' Association, HRW, Forum 18 News Service and others have provided ample testimony of the systematic and widespread use of torture and blanket suppression of civil rights, among many human rights problems, their indictment is not enough to delay the EU in its determination to take the geostrategic route to the daunting challenges presented by the remnants of the Soviet empire.

Opinion on how to handle the persistence of authoritarian regimes has been divided in the West. On the one hand, there are MEPs willing to try to create a trigger to suspend the PCA and at least to invoke human rights concerns as integral to any such pact. On the other hand is Lord Waverly (John Desmond Anderson), who came to Turkmenistan to sign an inter-parliamentary agreement between the UK and Turkmenistan's rubber-stamp legislature that was supposedly going to cover "ideals of democracy and good governance," but which had the effect of undermining the supposedly sterner message of the European Parliamentary delegation as it came around the same time.

The Turkmen government was clearly hoping to get through the "inspection" from the European Parliament with as little sacrifice as possible. In a positive move, the government permitted family members to visit two long-time political prisoners who had been incommunicado for years (a gesture perceived as a gift to the US, as the announcement was made to the US Embassy in Ashgabat in response to a letter sent a year ago by US senators, and announced at the nomination hearing of Ambassador Robert Patterson).Yet, the government then reverted to form -- right on the eve of the arrival of the European MEPs, there were several arrests of activists apparently to keep them from telling their stories to the delegation.

Another gesture that may have been mustered in time for the arrival of the European delegation was the announcement that Ruhnama, Niyazov's cult-book imposed on the educational system and public life,was being further downplayed by removal as a required exam subject. But even as Ruhnama recedes, there is a disturbing tendency for the regime to replace its amalgam of religious and everyday practical precepts with President Berdymukhamedov's own books on subjects ranging from health to horses. Strangely, the state media also rhapsodized during the equestrian festivities last week about a seeming sign from heaven -- a dove alighted on the shoulder of the Turkmen leader as he was putting one of the famous Akhal-teke steeds through its paces.

Turkmenistan, which has shown some signs of a cash flow problem with a scandal involving non-payment to Turkish construction firms which have been dotting the landscape with numerous projects in Ashgabat's building boom, must be feeling flush again. China announced last week that it is loaning another $4.1 billion to Ashgabat in the form of a soft loan to help run the pipeline to China, which began pumping gas in 2009 after an initial $4 billion loan, and is expected to reach 40 billion cubic meters (bcm) by 2015. The largesse from Beijing puts Ashgabat more in debt to the Chinese and creates a new dependency for its exports replacing the old reliance on Russia.

Today, Gazprom only purchases 10. 5 bcm, and refuses to raise its purchase price or its volume. Iran is supposedly to purchase roughly the same amount, and perhaps that's why the prospect of dealing with the EU looks more promising at the moment, as it could mean new money, which would be connected to support of the Trans-Caspian pipeline. Turkmenistan is looking to boost crude oil processing as well, Central Asia Newswire reported, currently doing a feasibility study on constructing an oil refinery to double production on the Caspian Sea coast. Dragon Oil, a Dublin-listed company 51% owned by the United Arab Emirates and valued at €3.32 billon, raised its daily production from 47,600 barrels last year to 57,800 barrels this year, The Independent reported.

Turkmenistan is also still working to nail down the details of the Turkmen-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, to stretch 1.735 kilometers from its Yolotan gas fields through Kandahar in Afghanistan to reach India, at an estimated cost of $7.6 billion. Yet the ministers from the four countries, despite several meetings since their December agreement in principle to build the pipeline, have still failed to come to terms on the price Turkmenistan will accept for its gas.

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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