Turkmenistan stuck its head above the parapet in September by dispatching an official delegation to a major human rights and democracy conference for the first time in 12 years.
What the delegation heard at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, an annual event hosted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, was not to its liking, however.
On September 30, Turkmenistan’s Foreign Ministry issued a testy press release to complain about “certain people (at the conference) indulging in a range of subjective, provocative attacks and biased comments about Turkmenistan with the clear aim of putting psychological pressure on members of the Turkmen delegation.”
That may in part have been a reference to remarks made at a September 22 meeting by an exiled Turkmen activist, who insisted on referring to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov as a dictator – much to the chagrin of Turkmen officials present.
Radio Azattyk cited Turkmen deputy foreign minister Vepa Hajiyev at the meeting as insisting that freedom of speech is respected in Turkmenistan and that Internet access was on the increase. Hajiyev also denied reports that authorities have forced people to dismantle their satellite dishes, which remain for many a sole inlet to news from the outside world.
“We continue to provide various social benefits, like free gas, water and electricity,” Hajiyev was quoted as saying by Radio Azattyk. “A dictator doesn’t do these things. This is all done for the people.”
The U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE, Daniel Baer, was unimpressed by Turkmen commitments to bring ever more people online. In a speech, also delivered on September 22, he criticized an Internet law recently adopted by Turkmenistan.
“While its goal of increasing access to the Internet is laudable, the law codifies restrictions on access to information, requires Internet providers to monitor online activity and filter materials that may be deemed unacceptable, and has unclear registration procedures,” Baer said, according to a copy of his speech on the U.S. OSCE mission website.
The criticisms heard at the conference, which the Turkmen Foreign Ministry described as an attempt to discredit the country’s reputation, bodes ill for any future representation from Ashgabat.
In the narrative that Turkmenistan is drawing for itself, the government in Ashgabat is embarking on extensive work to reform and improve their legislation while “taking into account the generally recognized norms of international law.”
As Turkmenistan’s Foreign Ministry argued in its statement, the government is undertaking “a gradual process of forming state and public institutions that will guarantee political, civic, economic, social and cultural rights and freedoms, as enshrined in foundational documents of international law.”
The fact remains that Turkmenistan continues to be its own worst enemy when it comes to projecting its image abroad.
And in late July, police in Turkmenistan arrested one of the very few independent reporters operating in the country. Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, who has worked as a freelance reporter for the Turkmen service of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was detained on July 7 in the port city of Turkmenbashi after a reporting trip to the resort of Awaza.
Nepeskuliev has since reportedly been sentenced to three years in jail on narcotics-related charges that his colleagues say were trumped-up.
The progress that Turkmenistan’s government likes to trumpet is hard to see from outside the country, where most curious reporters are confined by Ashgabat’s aversion to open information.