Surprisingly, the European Parliament announced that it is delaying the decision on the approval of the Partnership Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Turkmenistan. After its delegation visited Ashgabat in April and was not permitted to meet with any non-governmental organizations or activists (there are hardly any left), despite their own internal disagreements about whether to promote change in Turkmenistan through sticks or carrots, the European Parliament ultimately postponed the vote until at least July. Portuguese MEP Ana Gomes pointed out that a full-fledged European mission was needed in Ashgabat to tackle the difficulties of relating to Turkmenistan, not just Europa House, which evidently tends toward more superficial cultural contacts. The European delegation seemed almost as put out with their EU bureaucracy as with the Turkmen government, saying, in regard to the foreign service's arguments for engagement: "They simply are trying to give the impression that they [are doing] something very serious in order to improve the human rights situation in Turkmenistan," said Gomes. "I haven’t seen any of that. They are also giving completely false impressions that the PCA will make it possible to fully engage and fully improve the situation," Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe (RFE/RL) reported.
There is now a new division of powers created under the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, and the European Parliament is eager to "flex its muscles in foreign policy," says RFE/RL. But there's an open question as to whether the parliament, which includes figures like the Portuguese and Finnish delegates active on human rights, can trump the old-Europe consensus presided over by Catherine Ashton, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. There has always been a division among European powers over how to deal with the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet states, between newer democracies of Eastern Europe and some countries more recently coming out of dictatorships and the older establishment wishing to find an accommodation with the Kremlin and its allies. Recently, the desire to balance energy dependency on Russia with partnership with Central Asian countries, also eager to reduce reliance on Moscow, has been a driving factor for the EU as well. It’s also not clear, with the stalling of Nabucco, improved prospects for tapping shale gas, and differing priorities among European energy companies whether the imperative for rapprochement with Ashgabat is as great as it once was (Germany’s RWE is part of the Nabucco pipeline consortium, but Italy’s ENI is occupied with transporting liquefied natural gas over the Caspian on freighters).
Turkmenistan is currently the only Central Asian country without a PCA, and is temporarily governed by the Interim Trade Agreement. The MEPs have put off ratifying the PCA for years, citing the deplorable state of human rights and lack of progress in any of the areas they had listed as benchmarks, such as permission for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit the prisons. By contrast, Uzbekistan made that concession to the ICRC. Given that the European Parliament needs to have very concrete goals reached to show progress, it is likely that they will be satisfied with some doable gesture by the Turkmen regime -- perhaps an invitation to the UN rapporteur on education (but not on torture); perhaps the revision of the NGO law or even a registration of some state-controlled agrarian party or ecology NGO or even the release of just one political prisoner (Uzbekistan has found that works well to quell criticism.)
Given the European parliament's delay on the PCA, it was doubly disturbing that Sweden opted to deport a Turkmen dissident back to his homeland, despite petitions from human rights groups illustrating that he would likely face imprisonment and torture upon his return. Swedish migration officials said Keymir Berdiev, the son of a long-time opposition activist who had already sought refuge first in Russia, did not have sufficient documentation to make an asylum case. Swedish authorities put him on a plane to Baku. Berdiev's father and brother are linked to Turkmen opposition groups and, in the latter part of the 1990s, also worked for RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, RFE/RL reported. Berdiev was taken from Baku to Ashgabat, and his fate after that is not known.
Afghan President Hamad Karzai’s visit to Ashgabat sparked new speculation that Turkmenistan may be taken up on its offer to convene peace talks related to the war in Afghanistan. The proposal has not been taken seriously by the international community, but President Berdymukhamedov has persisted in invoking Turkmenistan’s involvement in peace talks in the Tajik civil war and Turkmenistan’s status of “neutrality” as reasons in its favor. Turkmenistan has also cited the presence in Ashgabat of the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy in Central Asia (UNRCCA), a body about which little is known, presumably because it is spending more time preventing new conflicts on water and energy among the Central Asian states than tending to existing conflicts like that in Afghanistan. Turkmenistan is praised by Western governments for offering cheap electricity and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, and for itself, is chiefly occupied with trying to kickstart the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline.
A ranking member of the Afghan High Peace Council, Mullah Jora Akhund recently included Turkmenistan in the list of venues for possible peace negotiations, as the US and the Taliban have been rumored to begin talks. He said that Turkmenistan “will only provide us with space and won't intervene in the discussions.” Turkmenistan has not sent troops to Afghanistan, but it has allowed its airport to be used for NATO planes to refuel. To preserve the secrecy preferred for such negotiations, diplomats in the post-WikiLeaks era may also be grateful for the lack of independent media in Turkmenistan as well, unlike other possible venues for talks such as Germany, Turkey, or Qatar.
A mass trial of 21 officials and staff in Dashoguz May 2 has shed some light on Turkmenistan's cotton industry, which has received far less scrutiny than that of neighboring Uzbekistan. The officials included directors of four cotton gins, warehouse managers, and distribution and purchasing agents for Turkmenpagta, the state-run cotton firm, News Briefing Central Asia (NBCA) reported. The Ministry of National Security handled the case, which indicates how seriously it was viewed by the government, says NBCA. With prices of cotton doubling and remaining high this season, it's not surprising that a case like this has developed. But as with Uzbekistan, given the state control over prices and sales, it seems inevitable that the government always has a ready-made case against anyone in the system who pockets profits and doesn't keep the right fix in. It is hard to know what really happened as no media were allowed at the trial and in any event, there isn't any domestic free press in Turkmenistan.
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