U.S. Officials in Ashgabat Spin Human Rights Message as Oil Executives Line Up for Turkmen President

A delegation of U.S. State Department officials and business executives travelled to Turkmenistan this week to launch a comprehensive program of dialogue that is to include human rights discussions as well as talks on energy security. Washington hopes to tap Turkmenistan's vast hydrocarbon riches, as well as gain Ashgabat's assistance in supplying NATO troops in the war in Afghanistan and promoting regional stability. Currently, the U.S. has a "gas-and-go" arrangement with Turkmenistan, landing planes in Ashgabat to refuel en route to Afghanistan with non-lethal freight.

Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary of State South and Central Asian Affairs
and Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights, as well as other U.S. defense, energy and aid officials visited Turkmenistan June 13-15 to launch the Annual Bilateral Consultations (ABCs), described as a "new beginning" to U.S.-Turkmenistan relations in "initiating an important dialogue on all aspects of the bilateral relationship between the United States and Turkmenistan, not only between our two governments, but between the Turkmen and American people." The ABCs involve "an ambitious plan of work to advance our relationship on all fronts with clear objectives and specific deadlines for future cooperation assigned to action-oriented working groups," said Blake in opening remarks.

One by one officials from a number of American companies that participated in the delegation -- Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Honeywell International, Case New Holland, Caterpillar, Exxon Mobil, John Deere, Boing, and General Electric -- went for personal audiences with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the authoritarian ruler of Turkmenistan who decides all major -- and many minor -- aspects of the economy and foreign relations in his new "multi-vector" foreign policy designed to enable Turkmenistan to diversify its gas markets, long dependent on Russia.

Assistant Secretary of State Blake's remarks at the business meeting sounded some of the right notes reflecting civil society concerns about the extractive industries and how they can negatively interact with "resource-cursed" authoritarian countries like Turkmenistan. But claims that the Turkmen president had equivalent concerns are not substantiated:

One attribute that sets U.S. companies apart from some of their competitors is their willingness to invest in the human capital of the nation in which they work, including right here in Turkmenistan through training programs and partnerships with local businesses. We often refer to this as corporate social responsibility- though for many U.S. companies, it is simply common sense and good business practice. President Berdymukhamedov has identified the “human factor” as the most important aspect of Turkmenistan’s future economic growth and development. In this sense, U.S. companies are well-placed to play a role in fulfilling the President’s Economic Strategy of “Relying on the People, for the Sake of the People”.

No plan was visible for moving Turkmenistan toward greater accountability to the public for state decisions on natural resources and expenditures. Since embarking on an ambitious new program of cooperation with China, Iran and other countries to build new pipelines and export gas, Turkmenistan's government has tended to construct huge government palaces and housing for top officials, as well as expensive showcase facilities like resorts and racetracks rather than to improve the standard of living for ordinary people.

Disconcertingly, despite ample documentation by international human rights groups of Ashgabat's failure to initiate authentic reforms, Assistant Secretary Blake put a positive spin on the meager progress made by Turkmenistan so far:

The United States recognized that Turkmenistan has made some progress in areas such as the registration of the Catholic Church, and the new amendments to the criminal code that provide, for instance, for new penalties against those who engage in trafficking in persons."

The U.S. International Commission on Religious Freedom, a bi-partisan government advisory body, has recommended that President Obama declare Turkmenistan a "country of particular concern," due to ongoing state intrusion into religious bodies, continued support for Ruhnama, a cult book promulgated by past dictator Niyazov and still required as a course for exams, and the failure to allow groups to register.

The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a hybrid body of the State Department and Congress, has repeatedly expressed concerns about the lack of human rights reform in Turkmenistan and also made the connections between basic principles of transparency and accountability for the energy industry and human rights.

In fact, human rights groups closely monitoring developments in Turkmenistan have indicated that a far more oppressive situation exists than has emerged from the State Department's current trip, as initial reforms have begun to be reversed. While President Berdymukhamedov at first improved the educational system and permitted more students to go abroad, last fall suddenly, despite already having received visas to study abroad in Kyrgyzstan and other countries at the American University in Central Asia and other U.S.-funded programs, Turkmen students were abruptly stopped at the airport and not permitted to leave. Although subsequently some were able to depart to alternative programs in Bulgaria and Russia, several hundred are still being kept as "refuseniks" despite their repeated pleas to the U.S. and United Nations. Nothing public was said about this onging problem, nor the inexplicable cancellation of a group of 47 U.S. Peace Corps volunteers who had already been issued visas. While 7 were finally admitted, others are being postponed and the total number reduced from 70 to 50, says USCIRF.

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders continues to name Turkmenistan among the countries with the least free press, and cites the arrest and sentencing of journalists and harassment of reporters. Freedom House has also rated Turkmenistan at the bottom of the world's worst dictatorships for blanket state control of media in a one-party dictatorship. Recently, the president indicated he might consider the appearance of a second party, but from all accounts, it will be a state conveyor-belt to mobilize rural people for agricultural reforms.

The French Doctors Without Borders also recently released a devastating report on the deplorable state of the health care system in Turkmenistan -- a situation actively caused by suppression of free media and NGOs as well as retaliation against domestic critics. The physicians said the "health care facade" is putting patients at risk -- and were forced to leave the country after 10 years of service due to lack of cooperation from Health Ministry officials.

Although constitutional and legal reforms have been made, and some pardons of prisoners made on various state anniversaries, no political prisoners have been freed in recent years. As Human Rights Watch has noted, while cooperating with the United Nations Universal Periodic Review process to present a report, Ashgabat rejected proposals to improve its record that only require political will, like the release of prisoners or lifting of travel ban. Groups like HRW are not even allowed to visit Turkmenistan to monitor the situation.

Recently, Farid Tuhbatullin, leader of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights forced to go into exile from Turkmenistan, palpably experienced the backlash for criticizing the Turkmen government. After making a speech at a round-table in Washington, DC organized by the National Endowment for Democracy, Tuhbatullin learned that his family remaining in Turkmenistan was being investigated, and security agents were making inquiries about his two sons, who are now living abroad with him. Sixty human rights advocates from around the world came to his defense.

Blake admitted progress is needed, saying he had discussed ways the U.S. could improve its rights record, RFE/RL reported.

No doubt some of the known issues were privately discussed -- but you would never know it from the official press, as the State Department officials came out sounding like this in the state media coverage:

Highly evaluating the peace-loving foreign policy and the important international initiatives of Turkmenistan, aimed in particular at stabilizing the situation in neighboring Afghanistan, to which the Turkmen government has been providing substantial support over the past years, Robert Blake and Michael Posner reaffirmed the intention of the government and business circles of the United States to establish fruitful contacts with Turkmen partners in all spheres without exception on a basis of an existing intense interest and the profound potential of mutually advantageous cooperation.

While the U.S. coordinated the delegations of both the human rights officials and business executives during the same week, in fact Eric Stewart, head of the Turkmen-American Business Council, sees the topics as separate, and told RFE/RL that the American business delegation did not plan to raise human rights issues, viewing this as the role of the State Department, and not the business community.

Critical reporting from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which provides loans for business development as well as benchmarks established for further cooperation, has made it clear how much basic human rights principles can enhance business and make for a more favorable and stable investment climate. In its latest country strategy for Turkmenistan, ERBD says it will look for "progress toward genuine political pluralism and meaningful political accountability, including the strengthening of checks and balances in the political system, removal of impediments to registration and free functioning of NGOs and even-handed application of the rule of law."

The American business people do not see it that way, however, and are expecting the State Department to do the talking about the tough rights issues -- even as State has tried to create the impression of progress where others are finding regress.

USCIRF and other organizations have urged that the U.S. speedily appoint an ambassador to Turkmenistan who could help promote some of the human rights and democracy goals of the U.S. on a day-to-day basis. There has been no American envoy to Ashgabat for four years.

U.S. Officials in Ashgabat Spin Human Rights Message as Oil Executives Line Up for Turkmen President

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