The office of the United Nations in Turkmenistan wants a quiet life.
For that reason, when petitioners come to it with requests for help, they can expect to have the door slammed in their face.
As Amsterdam-based outlet Turkmen.news has reported, the UN office in Ashgabat even has a boilerplate message with which to bat away people it perceives as wasting its time: “The UN office in Turkmenistan unfortunately does not have a department to handle petitions from the public, so it is not possible to respond to this appeal.”
Petitioners turning up at UN offices in person are rebuffed out of hand. People who insist on their letters being accepted will eventually receive the above message in return.
The worst headache for UN seat-warmers are the people moaning about having their human rights violated. In May, a quartet of prisoners – Allamyrat Korkhanov, Murat Dushemov, Nurgeldy Khalykov and Murat Ovezov – managed to smuggle out a letter in which they spoke of how they had been subjected to physical and mental abuse. They also alleged that they were being denied the right to receive visits and phone calls from relatives.
The UN permanent coordinator in Turkmenistan, Dmitry Shlapachenko, quails when asked to address this publicly, since doing so would risk irking his hosts, although he insists that he is liaising with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva over the matter. These doubtlessly feverish consultations have produced no results, alas.
While the UN could perhaps object that handling the petitions of members of the Turkmen public is not a core aspect of its mandate, the fact that people feel they have nowhere else to go with their problems should be acknowledged as evidence of failure.
Among the more disingenuous wastes of money on the part of the UN office in Ashgabat is a project to assist the government in implementing its National Action Plan for Human Rights for 2021-2025. One leading goal of this initiative is to strengthen the institution of the ombudsperson, which is the parastatal office that should be acting as the champion of downtrodden citizens. But as Turkmen.news notes, all this body usually does is forward petitions to the government body being complained about. In the realities of authoritarian Turkmenistan, in instances where a law enforcement body is the object of the complaint, this can only end badly.
Such rights activists as there are inside the country battle against all the odds. Few are as courageous as the independent journalist Soltan Achilova, 74, who had been due to travel to Geneva on November 17 to attend a human rights award ceremony and meet with representatives of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. At the airport, however, border officials purposely damaged the travel documents of Achilova and her daughter, Maya, as a pretext for denying them the right to leave the country. A statement of indignation at this incident co-signed by a coalition of foreign-based rights groups reported on other lurid treatment.
“After scanning the two women and their luggage electronically several times, customs officials also manually inspected their belongings and conducted body searches, during which Achilova was stripped twice – a degrading and humiliating experience for her,” the November 21 statement said.
Less than two weeks before that, Turkmen government officials had pledged during a Universal Periodic Review carried out at the United Nations Human Rights Council that the authorities would uphold free speech and create an open climate for journalists to work. Those officials are trained in how to address that review, incidentally, under that abovementioned UN project on the National Action Plan for Human Rights. Turkmen officials dissemble and lie as if their life depended on it, and the UN teaches them how to do it in a professional manner.
Turkmenistan is increasingly able to enact its repression transnationally. On November 22, Tajigul Begmedova, a Turkmen human rights activist based in Bulgaria, was deported from Turkey, which she had traveled to on her way to a documentary festival in Kyrgyzstan, on the grounds that she is a “threat to national security.” Begmedova’s organization, the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, or THFHR, said in a statement that she was informed that the Turkish Migration Service had adopted a five-year travel ban against her in September. Begmedova’s work on assisting Turkmen nationals living in Turkey fight for their rights is assumed to be one potential motivation for her being slapped with a persona non grata label.
Where Turkey was once considered something of a haven for Turkmen dissidents, it is now anything but. In its eagerness to cultivate its relationship with Ashgabat, Ankara has readily assisted in deporting individuals wanted by the Turkmen security services.
A more benevolent line of cooperation is developing between Turkmenistan and the United States. On November 27, the U.S. special envoy on the climate, John Kerry, called President Serdar Berdymukhamedov for a chat about ongoing efforts to reduce methane emissions into the atmosphere. This exchange comes on the eve of the latest UN Climate Change Conference, dubbed COP28, which is taking place in Dubai from November 30 to December 12.
As has been amply documented, Turkmenistan is a methane emissions offender on an eye-popping scale, but it has recently committed to tackling the problem. It is leaning heavily on outsiders for guidance on this and other green issues.
On November 13, the Environment Protection Ministry signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations Environment Program, or UNEP, on an agenda that will include developing programs to bring climate-friendly technologies to Turkmenistan.
Later in the month, Turkmen energy executives were among the delegation of Central Asian officials that attended a European Union-organized study tour to Georgia to learn about that country’s success in developing its impressive renewable energy sector. Akmyrat Akmyradow, who represented state-run power company Turkmenenergo on this tour, spoke loftily of Turkmenistan’s “abundant potential to produce renewable energy, especially solar and wind.”
“The country's new legislation provides relevant incentives for renewable energy projects,” he was reporting as saying.
For all that potential, and notwithstanding the fact that Turkmenistan’s leaders have been harping on about environmental issues for years now, the amount of electricity produced with renewables in Turkmenistan is vanishingly tiny.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.