Turkmenistan Weekly Roundup
The United States launched an ambitious high-profile dialogue with Turkmenistan this past week in a bid to gain access to the Central Asian nation's vast hydrocarbon reserves and enlist Ashgabat’s cooperation in the war in Afghanistan. A delegation of top State Department officials led by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake came to Ashgabat June 13-16 for meetings with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. Scheduled at the same time was a business forum, with a dozen top U.S. energy and other companies joining the U.S. government in bidding for Turkmenistan's attention. Ashgabat reputedly controls the fifth largest gas reserves in the world.
The Americans were arriving late to a scene already dominated by China, which gave a $4-billion soft loan to the Turkmen government last year to build a pipeline eventually to pump some 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas, and neighboring Iran, which is increasing its purchases as well. Even Russia, which is retreating from its dominance of Turkmenistan’s energy corridors, is still buying about 10.5 bcm. The European Union has been assiduously courting Ashgabat for far longer than the United States, but without any firm commitment to supply the Nabucco pipeline. German gas giant RWE has offshore drilling privileges; so far the Turkmen government has not given rights to land exploration to any other country's companies but China’s.
Not to be discouraged, one after another, U.S. oil and gas companies including Chevron, Exxon Mobile, ConocoPhilips, and manufacturing companies such as John Deere and Caterpillar lined up to have personal audiences with President Berdymukhamedov himself. The response from Turkmenistan was cordial, but no pictures of the meetings were published, as has been done with other, more welcome partners.
Although the U.S. trade balance with Turkmenistan is currently fairly low at about $213 million, and the prospect for gaining a production-sharing agreement still quite uncertain, the spectacle of so many oil executives vying for the autocratic Turkmen president's attention was unsettling for human rights activists, inevitably fueling stereotypes of what happens when big oil courts despotic regimes.
To offset these inevitable concerns, the State Department worked hard to use terms like “corporate social responsibility” in the speeches made, and even put a human rights component into the mission, inviting as part of the delegation U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner and other relevant officials who held talks with various Turkmen ministers about democracy and humanitarian issues, in addition to business.
This gesture was undercut by Assistant Secretary Blake's unwarranted praise of "progress" by Turkmenistan's government in human rights for the rather minimal accomplishments, such as registering the Catholic Church and passing a law on human trafficking. In this nominally secularized Muslim country, where Islamic religious sentiment outside the state’s bounds is suppressed, Russian Orthodox believers are the main religious minority, and have formally been granted more recognition lately although ordinary Russians feel trapped without validation of their dual citizenship status. Catholics make up a tiny community mainly of expatriates. Trafficking is a problem throughout the poor countries of Central Asia, but the Turkmen migration authorities so heavily control movement in and out of the country, with increasingly intrusive measures, that the issue, while relevant, isn't on the top of the human rights violations list. Even as the American delegation was holding their talks, a group of 30 Uzbek women in Lebap Province who had married Turkmen men and given birth to children eligible for Turkmen citizenship were being summarily deported, simply because their marriages as foreigners were not recognized. Reports of fees as high of $50,000 to validate such marriages have been received by the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights
Meanwhile, the glaring issue that everyone was hoping that U.S. officials would speak publicly about -- or at least quietly fix -- is the barring of Turkmen students who were accepted for study in programs abroad financed by the United States, but blocked suddenly last fall as they tried to board planes. While some students eventually were placed in alternative programs, hundreds remain as "refuseniks" without permission to go abroad and with education plans in ruins. Part of the problem with addressing these cases is that the government will not publicly acknowledge how many there are, or why they are being blocked, although presumably, security concerns about the exposure of young people to both Western "color revolutions", as well as the region's Islamic extremist movements are behind the travel ban. The outbreak of ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan unexpectedly shed light on the fact that, despite the ban, hundreds of Turkmen students in fact were studying in Osh in Kyrgyz educational institutions. While at first apparently being unable to come to their help (Turkmenistan has no consular officials in Kyrgyzstan), eventually the Turkmen government sent planes to ferry out the students, several of whom were reportedly injured in the violence.
Geopolitical planners in both the United States and EU have grimly come to a determination that protesting the deep-seated problems of the failure to legalize civil society is not working. They do not appear willing even to demand resolution of a few cases of political prisoners who illustrate these principles, and have come to believe that rhetoric about such issues and cases is preventing progress in "softer" areas where the Turkmen government might be persuaded to modify its practices. So softer topics like "trafficking" or "HIV prevention" are introduced in the hopes they will appeal to the government's already ample existing desire to control society -- but control it at least for a good purpose.
In what may have been a coordinated effort, the OSCE and France made a demonstrative push this week to praise Turkmenistan's human rights progress, and refrain from criticism. A French diplomat, Francois Zimeray, who traveled to Ashgabat earlier this month, frankly stated that he was giving up the tactic of naming and shaming, and was not allowed to visit two Turkmen journalists who helped a French TV station and were arrested and sentenced to long terms for their trouble.
As for any further cooperation to assist NATO in Afghanistan with more than a “gas and go” for U.S. airplanes carrying non-lethal supplies, nothing at all was said about the Northern Distribution Network publicly. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit on June 10, President Berdymukhamedov said Turkmenistan offered its auspices for talks among parties to the conflict in an effort to contribute to peacemaking. Turkmenistan played a similar role in serving as a venue for talks among the parties in the Tajikistan civil war in the 1990s.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Turkmenistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Choihona blog.