U.S. Asst Secretary Blake to Travel to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan
The State Department announced yesterday that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Central And South Asia, Robert O. Blake, Jr., will be traveling to Turkmenistan February 14-16 and then on to Uzbekistan February 17-18. In Ashgabat, Blake will lead an interagency delegation to conduct a mid-term review of the annual bilateral consultations or "ABC" talks.
State.gov said the topics would include "economic issues" and "regional challenges"; the Facebook page of the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat had a little more news this time:
The bilateral consultations will focus on all aspects of the U.S.-Turkmen strategic partnership, including the stabilization of Afghanistan, security cooperation, human rights, and commercial and economic cooperation.
In a recent talk at Rice University in Texas, Blake outlined the Obama Administration's goals in Central Asia, which basically consist of building the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) to supply NATO troops in Afghanistan, and then converting this route somehow into a pathway for prosperity for the countries of Central Asia. They stand to benefit first by transit fees and sales of fuel and products, and eventually by large infrastructure projects as well, including pipelines.
Last June, when the ABC talks were kicked off, Blake brought a number of officials, including Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights, to discuss human rights along with military logistics. A group of energy company executives also accompanied the mission and had personal audiences with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
Mid-term, the ABC does not have an awful lot to show for itself -- at least publicly. Last year, Chevron and other American companies were confident that they would get offshore drilling permits from President Berdymukhamedov, who at first seemed magnanimously to offer Caspian Sea shelf sectors that in fact had once been promised to the Russian company Lukoil. But while Chevron executives have travelled several times to Ashgabat since then and has revived an office in the Turkmen capital, the drilling permits do not appear to have been issued yet.
On the human rights front, Blake also had very little to show last summer: a small Catholic parish in Ashgabat of less than 100 people, made up mainly of ex-pats, was finally registered by the authorities. In this country where most people are Muslim believers or secular, and where both religious and civic organizations are ruthlessly suppressed, it seemed small comfort. After a year of stalling on departure visas for hundreds of Turkmen students in American-financed programs abroad, most were allowed finally to leave for their studies last fall, although many not to their originally selected countries.
It will be interesting to see what concessions, if any, the ABC mid-term review will bring about now in any area, whether energy or logistics or human rights.
Currently, the U.S. has a "gas-and-go" agreement with Turkmenistan, landing planes in Ashgabat to refuel en route to Afghanistan in order to deliver non-lethal freight. Likely the U.S. wants to make sure that arrangement stays in place, and has aspirations for even greater enhancements.
As for human rights cases, there are long lists of issues and political prisoners that civil society activists hope are raised on these occasions, such as the imprisoned former foreign minister, Boris Shikhmuradov, who has not been heard from since his trial in 2002 on charges of an alleged coup.
Human Rights Watch has issued an appeal on behalf of Pastor Ilmurad Nurliev, a Protestant preacher in the provincial city of Mary. Nurliev was sentenced to four years of prison in October 2010 on charges of allegedly swindling money from four parishioners. All four people testified they had been forced to make a contribution to the congregation, but the defense attorney pointed out that at least one of these informants had been in prison and may have cooperated with the state to set up the pastor. Human Rights Watch says the pastor was not given a fair trial, and a dozen parishioners who testified on his behalf were ignored. This is the kind of case that may be solved at an ABC, along with any logjams on the drilling permits.