Turkmenistan bristles at suggestions that it has become an oppressive place for women to live.
It was this topic that Deputy Foreign Minister Vepa Khadzhiyev chose to address at a press briefing last week in the wake of a country Universal Periodic Review carried out on November 6 at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Speaking back in Ashgabat, Khadzhiyev sought to knock down the allegations made about his country one by one.
It is not true, he said, that women are being barred from driving. On the contrary, roughly 10,000 women have obtained driving licenses over the past three years, he told reporters on November 16, according to a report by TASS news agency.
Amsterdam-based outlet Turkmen.news was far more informative. Reporting on the proceedings of the Universal Periodic Review, the website cited Geldimyrat Veliyev, who spoke in representation of the Turkmen Interior Ministry, as saying that women’s driving privileges were indeed at one point “temporarily suspended” after it was found that many of them were on the road without licenses. After a sweep to crack down on this problem was completed, the ban was lifted, Veliyev said.
Turkmen.news further noted that the authorities ceased in 2018 to issue new licenses to women or to renew ones that had expired. A couple of years later, a group of around 30 Ashgabat citizens mounted a rare protest at the headquarters of the traffic police service. This dissent was rapidly crushed, but licenses did start to be selectively reissued – on an arbitrary basis – toward the end of 2020. But in the summer of 2022, rules were again tightened, with permits granted only to women who could prove they owned their own car. Since cars could not be owned by women under the age of 40, that was another restriction of sorts. By the end of 2022, women wanting licenses were being asked to provide marriage certificates, notes from employers or letters from neighborhood management committees attesting to the appropriate composition of their families.
Other charges heard at the Universal Periodic Review were that women are restricted in their right to wear “modern-style” clothing and use cosmetics and jewelry. On a larger point, one informant, the Tallinn-based Eurasian Coalition for Health, Rights, Gender and Sexual Diversity, contended that while “men and women were guaranteed equal rights and opportunities … full participation of women in the decision-making process [is] yet to be achieved.”
Khadzhiyev rejects all this wholesale. He told journalists that no specific dress code is enforced in Turkmenistan and that women are permitted to choose their attire freely. The credibility of these protestations is somewhat undermined by the common sight of young women attending public events wearing uniform traditional dresses. By way of mitigation, though, it should be said that many Turkmen men are constrained by similar standards of sartorial conformity.
As to lack of participation in public life, Khadzhiyev said this too was untrue and that women are active in such fora as the parliament, the government, regional administrations, and law enforcement. This too is a knowingly misleading overstatement and such representation as exists is tokenistic.
In institutional terms, perhaps the most important person in the country is Dunyagozel Gulmanova, who has been speaker of the lower house of parliament since April 2023, but this is a role of no importance since the legislature has no actual powers. Perhaps to convey the impression that Gulmanova does have a role in policy- and decision-making, though, she was invited to speak first during the November 17 Cabinet meeting, held one day after Khadzhiyev made his defensive remarks.
The rest of the officials delivering reports to President Serdar Berdymukhamedov were, it is probably needless to note, all men.
On November 17, Ashgabat played host to an Iran-Turkmenistan intergovernmental meeting designed to build on foundations laid during Berdymukhamedov’s visit to Tehran in June 2022. Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency, or IRNA, reported that this event produced $900 million in deals. Two deals, to be exact; one for an unidentified road construction project worth $550 million and the other for the construction of a power transmission line worth $340 million.
A business forum held on the side was designed to generate more such deal-making, albeit on a doubtless more modest scale. Around 80 Turkmen private sector players reportedly attended the event.
Meanwhile, 300 Iranian companies and businesses set out their pitch at a trade fair in Ashgabat. As IRNA put it, “the exhibition is aimed to give a boost to Iran’s exports, especially the exports of techno-engineering services.”
Iran is consolidating its role as something of a broker in Turkmenistan’s efforts to widen its base of buyers for its natural gas. First there was the three-way Azerbaijan-Iran-Turkmenistan gas swap hatched in 2021. Most recently, the work has all but been completed on a deal for Turkmenistan to deliver 9 billion cubic meters of gas to Iraq annually over a period of five years. The gas is to be provided to Iraq by means of a swap arrangement with Iran.
Speaking at the business forum, which was held on November 18, Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov said Turkmenistan stood ready to further increase gas exports via such swap arrangements.
“[At] the Turkmen-Iranian intergovernmental commission, [Iran’s Roads and Urban Development Minister Mehrdad Bazrpash) and I began specific negotiations on increasing the volume of natural gas supplies to Iran in the near future. Today we will continue these negotiations,” Meredov was reported as saying.
In other remarks, Meredov proposed that two trading zones could be created along the border.
“There is a border bazaar at the Gaudan-Bajgiran checkpoint. Turkmenistan attaches great importance to the creation of such trading zones,” he said. “We invite Iran to study the prospect of creating trade zones at the Sarakhs-Saraghs and the Altyn Asyr-Incheboron checkpoints.”
Another vector of trade was discussed on November 15, when railway officials from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan all converged in Ashgabat for consultations on an international multimodal transport-transit route dubbed CASCA+. (The letters of that acronym stand for Central Asia, South Caucasus and Anatolia, while the + apparently signifies that any other country interested in joining is free to do so).
Since this initiative was created in 2019, nearly 30,000 containers have been carried along this route, according to a Turkmen state media report on the meeting. The aspiration is for 30,000 containers to have been carried across this same corridor this year alone. The purpose of such confabs is to ensure that personnel on the ground are liaising in an efficient manner and that the rules are clear to the point of making the movement of goods – on trains in this instance – as smooth as humanly possible. If ambitious targets are met, it means progress has been reached.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.