A fact-finding mission by members of the European Parliament (MEPs) visited Turkmenistan in late April to assess human rights conditions. Possibly because the group was divided on its impressions, and the head of the delegation was not available, the press conference following the trip got little press coverage. The delegation's members said officials in Ashgabat hampered their ability to interview Turkmen citizens and visit sites of concern, including the Ovan-Depe high security prison where some political prisoners are said to be held.
The MEPs’ visit came at a time of debate within EU countries over how to approach Turkmenistan effectively given European values for democracy but geopolitical needs for diversification of energy supply and regional security. Currently, the EU has an Interim Trade Agreement (ITA) and is due to vote in June on a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) after hearing the results of this fact-finding mission in a report in late May.
Before the fact-finding mission to Ashgabat the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee issued a statement calling Turkmenistan's rights record "abysmal" and added that EU engagement should be dependent on Ashgabat making "concrete progress" to promote basic rights, EurasiaNet reported. Perhaps the European Parliament thought with such a blast, it might get some concessions at least on some cases or some increased access, yet the Turkmen government's response was to shrug. Four people were arrested in the weeks before the MEPs’ mission; two were later released. Two long-time prisoners who had helped a French TV crew make a documentary critical of past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov got a family visit.
And that's about it -- very modest concessions that seemed also related to a forthcoming examination of Turkmenistan's record by the UN Committee against Torture and the new American ambassador's nomination hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That the protests of these powerful institutions can only get a family visit for prisoners long held incommunicado, but not their release, or obtain the release of people who shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place, and seemed to have been picked up for the express purpose of deterring them from talking to a fact-finding mission, hardly seems like progress. Rather, it is a testimony both to the intransigence of the Turkmen government and the weakness and dependency of the West on the Central Asian dictatorships due to other exigencies of energy and security.
The prospect is slim for any wording within the PCA that would imply linkage to human rights progress given that the human rights situation is already "abysmal," and existing means to extract concessions seem as if they are not working. The time horizon for the Turkmen government is far longer than that of impatient Western officials. Ten years can be an eternity in European parliamentary politics and assessing whether sanctions work; Turkmenistan, flush with Chinese soft loans and the prospect of projects with Iran and Arab countries as well as the TAPI pipeline with its neighbors, can afford to wait out its critics from the West.
After a hiatus of nearly five years, the US has finally sent an envoy to Ashgabat as chief of mission (it has been run by a series of charges during this period.) Ambassador Robert E. Patterson, Jr. arrived in Ashgabat just in time for the first US Business Exhibition, which shows off some 50 companies already doing business in Turkmenistan ranging from oil and gas companies to manufacturers of agricultural machinery. President Berdymukhamedov received the new ambassador and the conversation was upbeat, focusing on business prospects and the importance of "mutually profitable" ventures -- human rights issues did not seem to be mentioned.
President Berdymukhamedov replaced the head of his pocket Central Elections and Referendums Commission for reasons that are not clear. Myrat Garriyev, 79, was moved from his post as head of the electoral commission to serve as deputy chairman of the Council of Elders, a largely ceremonial body meeting a few times a year, The Council of Elders seems to have received more presidential attention lately, but it has served merely as a sop to such meager provincial unrest that still manages to appear in Turkmenistan’s impoverished countryside, and also has been made to absorb some of the elders kicked out of the 2,000-strong Halk Maslaty (People's Assembly), drastically reduced in size in parliamentary and constitutional reforms in 2008. Garriyev was the official to formerly propose that Berdymukhamedov serve as acting president in 2006, even though by the rules of succession at the time, Ovezgeldy Atayev, chairman of the parliament (now in prison) should have had that role. Garriyev also called the 2007 presidential elections --with no authentic opposition candidates in the one-party state -- as "free and fair" with 90 percent of the vote.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty conducted some polls about the change, and one pensioner reasoned that outside the formal electoral body, Garriyev would be more free -- and convincing – to play his sycophantic role promoting the president's personality cult. It seems unlikely that the already-presidentially-controlled elections commission really needs personnel changes to comply with the president's wishes, but it also seems unlikely that the Council of Elders is such a democratic force that it needs placating -- or control by loyalists. Even so, it is one of the oldest institutions of Turkmen society stretching back centuries. While the decisions the body makes appear as rubber-stamped as the parliament, and it may be valued largely for its conveyor-belt function in disseminating pre-cooked government decrees to the masses, as newscentralasia.net notes, the informal role of the body is to push up the vertical presidential chain of command real issues of concern to people, like the slowness of agricultural reform and rampant drug addiction.
Last year, Berdymukhamedov used the Council of Elders gathering to announce again that he wanted parliament to accelerate its drafting of a law for political parties, and that he wanted the second party allowed to be an agrarian party. In the year since, neither the law nor the second party has appeared.
Fresh WikiLeaks revelations of a cable dated in 2007, giving an account between then charge Richard Hoagland and prominent Turkish businessman Ahmet Chalik, seemed to shed some light on the access of Berdymukhamedov to power. Chalik said “the guys with the guns,” i.e. the power ministries of interior, defense, and security, were behind his presidency and in fact controlled him. Chalik also claimed that a Turkmen deputy security minister was supposedly a Russian agent and that Ashgabat was under Russia’s influence. But the story seems threadbare, four years later, as in 2008, Berdymukhamedov briskly fired the deputy minister, stripping him of his military rank and privileges. And he has also shuffled other ministers around repeatedly, most notably firing his security chief in March. That would suggest that the power ministers don’t have quite the hold over him imagined, although Chalik, who himself was made a Turkmen citizen and vice premier for his services to the Turkmen economy, would have been in a position to know a lot of the behind-the-scenes intrigues. Under Berdymukhamedov, however, associated as he was with the old regime, he apparently lost his proximity to power.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Turkmenistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Sifting the Karakum blog. To subscribe to the weekly email with a digest of international and regional press, write firstname.lastname@example.org