Under Turkmenbashi’s shadow
WHEN Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenbashi or father of all the Turkmen, died of heart failure in December 2006, there was guarded optimism that better days might lie ahead for his benighted country. A year and a half later, assessments are at best mixed. This week the European Union and Turkmenistan held their first “human-rights dialogue” in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat. Amnesty International, a human-rights lobby, marked the event with a report sharply critical of the Turkmen authorities and describing the human-rights situation in the country as “appalling”.
In truth the initial optimism was partly based on the depressing recognition that things could hardly get any worse. Turkmenistan had been Central Asia’s North Korea, albeit minus the nukes. Mr Niyazov, a long-serving president-for-life, was infamous for his bizarre personality cult and frequently changing hair-colour. His repressive regime kept a country of some 5m people in international isolation, allowing very few to travel.
Amnesty does acknowledge some improvements under Mr Niyazov’s successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, previously Turkmenistan’s health minister. Several political prisoners have been freed; the right to ten years of education has been restored; pension payments eliminated or reduced two years ago have been reinstated; and some restrictions on internal travel have been eased. But there is less to some of this than meets the eye. Prisoners were freed by presidential pardon, not through a transparent judicial process. Access to the internet has been broadened, but websites covering human-rights violations or criticising government policies have been blocked more thoroughly.
Some foreign governments take a much more upbeat line—perhaps in part because of Turkmenistan’s appeal as an energy treasure-house, whose reserves of natural gas are estimated to be the world’s fourth-largest. Some have “dreamlike” expectations, says one Western diplomat. In this analysis, change will of necessity be gradual, since the government cannot address all shortcomings at the same time. Reforms in education and health, for example, will take a generation, because of a shortage of qualified people.
The same diplomat says the atmosphere in Ashgabat has been transformed. The Turkmen authorities no longer refuse to talk about sensitive issues. They try to answer questions openly. Mr Berdymukhammedov has also taken steps to end the country’s isolation by making friends with neighbouring countries, such as Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, with whom relations had been virtually frozen.
Delegations from international oil and gas companies and foreign governments have stampeded into Turkmenistan over the past year and a half. Political and business leaders from America, Russia, China and the European Union are impatient for a faster opening up. Ensuring their respective countries’ energy security with Turkmen gas is usually a higher priority than human rights.
Aware of these immense business interests, Amnesty’s report cites a Turkmen activist who says that many diplomats are too easily fobbed off with imitations of reforms rather than the real thing. This allows their countries to do business with the authorities without having to worry about being blamed for co-operating with a repressive regime. But Michael Denison, an expert on the country at Britain’s University of Leeds, points to another reason for the lack of pressure on foreign governments. Turkmenistan, he says, is a desert society that has traditionally been apolitical and has lacked an urban intelligentsia and sense of nationalism. So there is no pressure from below. That is a relief not just to Turkmenbashi’s successor, but to his foreign suitors as well.