The Pentagon reportedly intends to ship 75 percent of all non-military cargo destined for Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) by the end of 2011, EurasiaNet reported. The US wants to significantly expand traffic on the NDN to reduce reliance on the Pakistani Ground Line of Communication and wants to secure additional approvals for the NDN from Central Asian governments. Turkmenistan’s role in the NDN has been low key to date. It has not signed a transit agreement with either the United States or NATO, although Ashgabat allows its international airport to be used a refueling stop for US military planes. Commercial companies also transit bulk fuel deliveries destined for bases in Afghanistan through Turkmenistan, and US government-contracted fuel suppliers occasionally buy duty-free fuel from Turkmenistan.
Maersk Line Ltd, a US government contractor, has readied a “Northern Europe Truck Route via Turkmenistan” stretching from the Baltic port of Riga, Latvia, to Serhetabat-Turgundi on the Turkmen-Afghan border. So far, these aspirations are at the level of proposals, but the US is pushing hard for this, sources who requested anonymity told EurasiaNet. It remains uncertain whether “neutral” Turkmenistan will go along with this plan.
With the new US envoy to Ashgabat in place, Ambassador Robert Patterson, we can expect the US to become more visible in Turkmenistan, even if the diplomacy on a number of subjects may remain quiet. The April 5 videotaped nomination hearing of Patterson, chaired by Senator Robert Casey Jr. (D-PA, was a rare opportunity to hear US concerns about the American relationship with Turkmenistan.
As we know from years of rumors and now alleged cables leaked by WikiLeaks last November, the US uses Turkmenistan as a listening post on neighboring Iran. A network of "Iran watchers" report regularly on what they glean from human intelligence, such as conversations with Iranian truckers in the borders areas. But what emerged from the hearing is that the US is also preoccupied with squaring the circle of their own increased cooperation with Ashgabat, even as Turkmenistan enhances its relationship with Iran, one of its gas customers. Patterson said a delegation from the State Department traveled to Ashgabat in late March to speak with American companies hoping to do business in Turkmenistan to make them aware of concerns about implementing sanctions against Iran. The US also demarches the Turkmen government regularly about the US goal of isolating Tehran, said Patterson.
Senator Casey inquired about how Turkmenistan would both diversify its gas delivery routes and also diversify its economy to become less dependent on hydrocarbons sales. Ambassador Patterson described how he would promote the participation of American companies in both the Trans-Caspian pipeline and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline.
Finally, Senator Casey had several questions about human rights concerns as well. He noted that last May, he had signed a letter organized by Senator Richard Durbin (R-IL) and then-Senator Samuel Brownback (R-KS) and addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about political prisoners in Turkmenistan. Apparently just in time for the hearing, the Turkmen government finally got back to the senators, via the US Embassy in Ashgabat. Patterson said the Turkmen response referenced two prisoners, Sapardurdy Khadjiev and Annakurban Amanklychev, arrested in 2006 for helping a French documentary crew, saying they had received medical care and visits from their families. There was no independent corroboration about their status in one of Turkmenistan's most notorious prisons in Turkmenbashi.
Senator Casey also asked about the potential for lessening restrictions on NGOs, and here Patterson acknowledged the challenges and cited some faint prospects for changes in the NGO law by the rubber-stamp parliament and possibly some incremental steps that he thought could be facilitated by focusing on people-to-people exchanges.
Then, as if a slap in the face to the new ambassador's aspirations, a group of 10 Turkmen doctors, already at the airport and ready to depart April 6 on the Community Connections program sponsored by the Embassy and the American Councils for International Education, was suddenly cancelled. Border authorities took the group off the plane although they already had tickets and visas. They were going to the US to study the issue of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis -- an issue that has been identified as critical by Doctors without Borders, a non-governmental organization forced to leave Turkmenistan after 10 years when the Ministry of Health refused to cooperate with them.
A spokesperson for Community Connections told EurasiaNet that the program had to be canceled and the Embassy was "working on the situation to clarify the exact cause of the problem and ways to resolve it." The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights cited some possible concerns officials had with doctors who had been traveling to Turkey on buying trips in order to resell clothing and cosmetics and supplement their inadequate salaries.
The US has put considerable effort into training Turkmen border guards, providing assistance in building border installations, and supplying equipment. The US has helped reinforce border checkpoints with Iran in 2009, and recently, started English-language classes for 46 Turkmen officials from Turkmenistan's Customs Service, Border Service, Interior Ministry, Migration Service, Counternarcotics Agency, and Foreign Affairs Ministry, the US Embassy reported. More than 70 have already graduated from such classes. Yet, somehow, the US has been unable to influence the Turkmen government to stop hampering exchanges with professionals and students who are clearly documented and can't be construed as a threat to security.
An occasional paper by David Lewis for the Open Society Foundations, Reassessing the Role of OSCE Police Assistance Programming in Central Asia raises the question of how effective training of law enforcers are in closed societies like Turkmenistan that really have not demonstrated an authentic willingness to undergo democratic reforms. Lewis is stark in his assessment: the programs have " failed to achieve real reform in security services and have often compromised OSCE ideals by supporting forces that have been accused of human rights abuses and high-level corruption.” (Note: EurasiaNet is funded by Open Society Foundations through its Central Eurasia Project—ed). Human Rights Watch and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights have reported on torture and ill-treatment in police detention and the lack of any independent monitors permitted in Turkmenistan. Senator Casey asked Ambassador Patterson about the issue of obtaining permission for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit Turkmenistan, Patterson conceded this was a "tough nut to crack" because the Turkmen government would not agree to all of the ICRC conditions.
Meanwhile, President Berdymukhamedov is continuing to “reform” law enforcement his way – this week he issued another stern reprimand to his interior minister for poor oversight of the traffic police. The president reprimanded the city prosecutor for failure to keep an eye on Ashgabat’s many construction projects and fired the head of the government’s budget oversight agency, also in relation to unspecified problems with Ashgabat’s heavy construction expenditures.
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