16th Oct 2018

EU preparing to upgrade Turkmenistan relations

EU institutions are preparing to normalise relations with Turkmenistan, laying aside human rights benchmarks in a bureaucratic process marked by apathy and mistrust.

The European Parliament's international trade committee has invited the European Commission to brief MEPs about the political situation in the gas-rich dictatorship at its next meeting on 2 December.

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  • A view from the commission headquarters in Brussels, Turkmenistan feels very far away despite the grand rhetoric (Photo: Wikipedia.org)

The briefing will pave the way for parliament to decide on approving an Interim Trade Agreement (ITA) with Ashgabat, under a consultation procedure that would make refusal politically awkward for the treaty's future.

The ITA would multiply the number of EU-Turkmenistan meetings and improve prospects for opening a future EU embassy. It would also send the political message that Europe wants to do business with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

MEPs in February said the ITA should stay frozen until Turkmenistan releases political prisoners, gives access to UN experts on torture, lets people travel out of the country and reforms its educational system.

None of the benchmarks have been met. "This is a time when Turkmenistan is looking to the EU for partnership, for respectability. The EU needs to be consistent," Human Rights Watch (HRW) analyst Maria Lisitsyna said.

But the European Commission in December is likely to tell MEPs that Ashgabat has done enough to show it is open to change, highlighting minor reforms such as relaxation of forced teaching of the Rukhnama, a theological tract.

"We need to encourage these efforts and engage more with the country," commission external relations spokeswoman Christiane Hohmann said. "Non-approval of the ITA would risk sending the wrong message."

Mistrust of NGOs

Brussels sees NGOs such as HRW as a nuisance in its attempt to steer Central Asian countries out of the Russian sphere of influence in a grand geopolitical strategy.

"It's almost as if now that Uzbekistan has gone, they are turning all their attention to Turkmenistan," one EU official said, after the EU in October dropped Uzbekistan sanctions despite an HRW campaign.

The commission will be preaching to the converted as far as the largest parliamentary political group, the conservative EPP-ED, is concerned.

"If we don't talk to the Turkmen, they won't learn about democracy and human rights from Russia or from the Chinese government," German conservative MEP and ITA rapporteur Daniel Caspary said.

The deputy cast doubts on the reliability of HRW analysis, saying that in the past, Russian proxy groups have fed mis-information to Western NGOs.

"HRW, which I very much like, gets information from different channels and some of those channels - they don't know who is behind them."

Apathy also a force

Few MEPs take a strong interest in Turkmenistan, risking a situation in which a handful of pro-ITA deputies lead parliament decision-making.

The head of the Central Asia delegation, Lithuanian Liberal MEP Ona Jukneviciene, in April cancelled a delegation visit to Ashgabat because she was too busy with other things. Just one MEP turned up to a commission briefing on Turkmenistan to the human rights sub-committee in October.

The commission's geopolitical rhetoric also masks smaller bureaucratic objectives and gives an exaggerated impression of Central Asia's importance on its own agenda.

With Turkmenistan as the only one of the five Central Asia states where EU treaties still date back to Soviet times, some EU officials are keen to conclude the ITA to tick a box in their programme.

Senior EU personnel have in the past allegedly said that EU-Russia relations top the EU's foreign policy priority list, with EU-Central Asia relations way down the line. But the European Commission denies this is the case.

Correction: the story originally attributed remarks about Central Asia to two named European Commission officials. But EUobserver has decided to take out the names after the commission vigorously denied that such statements were made

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