With all eyes on Iran, the human rights abuses that continue in the repressive country of Turkmenistan have taken a back seat. Despite pressure from international NGOs and the U.S. Department of State’s designation of Turkmenistan as a country with an abysmal human rights record, its regime has not really done much to address these issues. In fact, things have gotten worse in the last few years.
Unlike other states that have a poor human rights record, Turkmenistan enjoys quite a bit of prestige because it has the fourth largest reserves of natural gas in the world and an impressive network of major gas pipelines that pass through it, terminating at its ports in the Caspian Sea. In fact, its foreign relations are contingent on its immense oil and natural gas holdings. State control of these resources is also what allows Turkmenistan’s regime to keep a tight grip over its citizens.
Is Turkmenistan essentially getting a free pass? One has to wonder why North Korea is consistently singled out for international condemnation while Turkmenistan – with the exception of a little head-butting with the United States about how it should proceed on the path towards democratic and economic reform – gets very little pushback from global powers. In general, the public knows at least something about North Korea but knows virtually nothing about Asia’s other reclusive dictatorship. Most cannot even identify Turkmenistan on a map.
While some might think it not entirely fair to compare the isolated and tyrannical country of North Korea with Turkmenistan, which is actively and largely cooperatively working with the other “Caspian 5” countries of Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan to promote the oil and gas industries in Central Asia, one thing is clear: Turkmenistan has a human rights problem that cannot continue to be ignored by the global community if the country expects to realize its full potential. It has already been passed up for valuable opportunities that could have boosted its international image and regional presence, all of which would have been a direct benefit to the Turkmen people.
For example, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has been hesitant to invest in Turkmenistan’s businesses because of its pervasive state intervention and state ownership. Even though private entrepreneurs and companies are growing in Turkmenistan, the country’s private sector is still very small and closely regulated by the state. The Bank has plans to offer financing to privately-owned companies outside the oil and gas sectors (where most of the jobs are) to boost Turkmenistan’s food processing and distribution, logistics, transport services, packaging, furniture, and hospitality sectors. But it wants the Turkmen government to meet specific benchmarks on pluralism and accountability, establish media freedoms, and improve its overall human rights record. With Turkmenistan’s incredibly high unemployment rate – some economists believe it is somewhere around 60% – the country cannot afford to pass up this important opportunity. Until Turkmenistan’s government starts making progress on these issues, the EBRD’s engagement will remain limited.
The European Union has also expressed serious concerns about Turkmenistan’s human rights situation, specifically on the issue of its reported use of torture. They urged the Turkmen government to release information on the status and location of prisoners who have disappeared in detention, facilitate prison visits by international monitors and to cooperate with UN special procedures. The EU also wants Turkmenistan to ease its restrictions on Internet access, cease dismantling satellite dishes, and lift excessive restrictions on civil society. It requires Turkmenistan to stop interfering with the right to freedom of expression, association, and religion and to be more transparent on issues regarding arbitrary evictions – like those that are happening in the country’s deserted capital city of Ashgabat to make way for more white marble-clad monuments, hotels, and office buildings. The UN plans to review Turkmenistan’s progress on these issues by sometime next year.
Unfortunately, even though Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov regularly professes respect for peace, integration, and good-neighborliness – which he claims are “essential for sustainable, stable and balanced international work” – the country is still very much at risk of falling back into the bizarre totalitarian-style rule Turkmenistan knew under its previous president -Saparmurat Niyazov, a megalomaniac dictator who ruled the country from 1985 to 2006 – whose cult of personality rivals North Korea’s contemporary despotic dynasty. Elements of this cult of personality still exist, as evidenced by the golden statues that dot Turkmenistan’s landscape. Alas, Berdymukhamedov has also started to add some of his own.
President Berdymukhamedov – who “won” re-election with 97% of the vote in 2012 – is considered an improvement over his predecessor. Even though he did, to some degree, dismantle Niyazov’s personality cult, he is still regarded by most as a despotic ruler who represses minorities, has a deep distain for basic freedoms, forces thousands of people to attend long events (with no breaks), and has zero tolerance for dissidents, journalists, and organizers of political parties. His regime has closed the country off from both geopolitical and independent inspection, frequently dodges inquiries from concerned foreigners, imposes draconian restraints on media and religious freedoms, and practices government strong-arm tactics on activists who dare to step forward to defend human rights.
Despite claims by the president that there have been reforms, imprisonment and/or forced labor are still being utilized as tools for political retaliation. It is feared many of these prisoners die or just “disappear” in captivity. The country’s justice system lacks transparency and there is no due process. The government is known to monitor electronic and telephone communications. Religious freedom is nonexistent in that unregistered religious groups or communities are not allowed and fines are imposed for unregistered religious activity. There are also nasty rumors that children are being taken out of school to go to work harvesting cotton or to labor in other sectors.
Despite all of this, there is hardly any demand globally for accountability. NGOs are banned from doing anything until they are registered. However, few independent NGOs have obtained legal registration in years. The International Committee for the Red Cross does not have full access to Turkmen prisons and Turkmenistan’s record of cooperation with the UN and the International Labor Organization is bleak. To make matters worse, it appears Berdymukhamedov is intent on building a new personality cult to replace the one he has slowly been trying to eradicate. While his speeches do receive positive reception at the regional level, questions still linger at the international level about how Turkmenistan will handle its human rights issues in the future and how the country will manage its massive resources under Berdymukhamedov’s one-party, dynastic leadership. If Turkmenistan cannot get important things done – like industrial privatization, market liberalization, fiscal and legal reforms – the country will not be able to attract foreign trade and investment like the prosperous and sovereign state it has the potential to become should.
Unfortunately, that motivation may rest with the global community to forcefully make it a major Turkmen priority. So far, that global responsibility has been weak at best and laughable at worst. Perhaps the greatest difference in terms of human rights attention between North Korea and Turkmenistan is the former’s ownership of nuclear weapons and nuclear technology. While this is no small matter, it is disappointing to see the international community basically sending a message to the rest of the world that the only time it will truly care about basic civil liberties and human dignity in oppressive countries is when said countries actually have the capability of causing damage or doing harm to people other than their own. In short, if all Turkmenistan is interested in is hurting Turkmen, that is acceptable to outside observers. This inhumane example of geopolitical moral relativism must be ended at the global level. For the message it sends is heard far beyond the borders of Central Asia’s own Hermit Kingdom.