Turkmen President Attends OSCE Summit; Human Rights Activists Forced to Stay Home
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov got his way -- he made it to Astana this week for the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), but human rights activists from Turkmenistan were forced to stay home, blocked by the OSCE chair-in-office, which is Kazakhstan this year.
In October and November, when OSCE ultimately allowed Turkmen activists to attend its human rights review conferences in Warsaw and Vienna despite Ashgabat's objections, the Turkmen leader had threatened to boycott the OSCE summit in Astana this week.
Earlier, when the human rights activists tried to register for the conferences, at first they were denied entry by the OSCE secretariat following Ashgabat's protest. As in past years, the Turkmen delegation doesn't even show up to these meetings due to criticism by delegations of the human rights situation in Turkmenistan.
Then Western diplomats led by the U.S. and European Union invoked a point of order, and eventually several activists, including Annandurdy Hajiev and Farid Tuhbatullin were allowed to participate -- angering the Turkmen government. Kazakh diplomats were then dispatched to Ashgabat for talks with the Turkmen Foreign Ministry and eventually some kind of agreement must have been raised.
Kazakhstan then stalled on issuing a visa to Hajiev, an economist who is co-chair of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. He protested and kept trying to re-confirm his flight without the visa. Finally, Hajiev told EurasiaNet that only a day before the parallel summit organized by non-governmental groups in Astana November 26-27, he finally received his visa to Kazakhstan -- but too late to get a booking on a plane or at a hotel. Kazakhstan's consulates abroad normally issue visas within five days, but dragged out the process for Hajiev. He was forced to give up his travel plans, but vows to continue his research and writings from his home in Bulgaria, where he was granted refugee status.
Meanwhile, following an Internet video interview, Farid Tuhbatullin, who has political asylum in Austria, was subject to death threats said to come from the Turkmen Ministry of Security. Ultimately it was conveyed to him, Hajiev and others by Kazakh officials that if they attempted to travel to Astana, their security could not be guaranteed.
The exiled activists sent an open letter to the organizers of the parallel conference saying, "Civil society in Turkmenistan is destroyed". A few activists who are able to work inside the country are virtually in the underground, and any attempts to cooperate with them are brutally cut off. Arrests, expulsions, intimidation and provocations have worsened now with the threat of assassination. They said that all of Central Asia was threatened with the "Turkmen model" for controlling society and that only with a conscious solidarity and resistance to both the authorities and conformists to the regime would it be possible to prevent further degradation of civil society.
The Turkmen activists also accused the OSCE office in Ashgabat of failing to promote their organization's own principles, and creating only an imitation of their mandate. "With its existence and activity in Turkmenistan, OSCE is vrutally an advocate of the totalitarian Turkmen regime," said the activists.
They called for persistent monitoring of human rights despite the obstacles and publication of critical assessments of the situation
Most pointedly, the activists said that their situation, after 20 years of "reforms," was no better than the perestroika era in the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s. For this, they faulted the human rights community in each country as well as at the international level for not being sufficiently principled and accountable in showing solidarity to their colleagues in Turkmenistan.
This conclusion prompted a heated debate in the comments to the letter on chrono-tm.org, where some people said that the Turkmen people themselves were to blame for failing to rise up against their oppressors. Others blamed large oil and gas importers and foreign governments dependent on Turkmen gas for maintaining the status quo. A person who gave his name only as "Vovan from Russia" said, "If Nabucco happens, no OSCE will be necessary. Europe will get on the gas needle and will not open its mouth against the outrageous human rights violations in Turkmenistan."
Ignoring all these protests, in Astana, President Berdymukhamedov reiterated proposals he had made in September at the United Nations about the need to ensure gas pipeline security, and also to encourage more multilateral dialogue on the political, financial, environmental and other aspects of pipeline infrastructure. He proposed that the heads of all the main energy ministries meet in Ashgabat to discuss such issues under OSCE auspices. He also repeated offers to assist with the peace process in Afghanistan.
In an indirect allusion to the pressure Turkmenistan has faced in the run-up to the Astana summit on human rights issues, the Turkmen leader signalled that would-be partners with Ashgabat had better temper their human rights critique:
The main thing here is a correct and appropriate perception by our partners of the pace and tempo of reforms, their correspondence to the national peculiarities of Turkmenistan, the specific and special nature of its historical path, traditions and mentality of its people. Such an approach will open up broad prospects for joint work, a search for new forms of cooperation, and a more effective use of the available potential.
Disturbingly, he called for reform of the structure and institutions of OSCE "in keeping with the demands of the time," and said Turkmenistan was prepared to "actively take part in this work". Russia and Kazakhstan have both worked to downplay the human rights work of OSCE and challenge its democracy-promoting institutions, and move the focus to security.
The Turkmen leadership appears to have won this round, with the West -- and Kazakhstan -- collapsing in the face of Ashgabat's threatened boycott, but ultimately, the Turkmen human rights advocates win by losing -- their eloquent and persistent protests expose the hollowness of the Helsinki heritage for too many in Central Asia today and should serve to incite the stewards of the OSCE process to do better.