Wednesday

11th Dec 2019

Opinion

What the EU should expect from Turkmenistan

Commission President Manuel Barroso and three senior European Commissioners received Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov in Brussels on Monday (5 November). Beyond the smiles and formal statements, one hopes they took the opportunity to remind the Turkmen leader that the EU's friendship has a price.

One year ago, the European Parliament's International Trade Committee made that price clear, setting out the conditions under which the EU would be willing to work with the Central Asian state. The Parliament would only give its approval to an Interim Trade Agreement "if concrete progress on the human rights situation is achieved".

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About a month later, Turkemnistan was thrown into shock with the death of Turkmenbashi -- or "Father of All Turkmen", as the late president, Saparmurat Niyazov, forced an entire nation to call him.

With the passing of the megalomaniacal leader, there was a sliver of hope that a new team would pull the country in a more positive direction. Indeed, after Niyazov had ruined the education and public health sectors, chalked up an exceptional record of human rights abuses even in a region known for them, jailed thousands of political prisoners, and nearly destroyed the economy despite rich energy exports, Berdimuhammedov could hardly do much worse.

Sadly, however, one can so far see no trace of any significant improvements. Berdimuhammedov may not commission gold statues of himself or change the names of months in the calendar to match his as Niyazov did, but apart from avoiding these comical excesses, it is pretty much the same oppressive regime familiar from the Turkmenbashi days.

Some Western voices, overly eager for signs of anything positive, have been grasping at the most meagre of straws. The opening of a single internet café in Ashgabat was thus hailed as great progress -- ignoring, of course, its prohibitive price for customers in this poor country and the intensive effort the state makes to filter out outside internet sites, not to mention the soldiers stationed at its doorways.

Others point to the end-of-Ramadan release of 9000 prisoners as a sign of softening attitude towards the opposition, but the move was so sudden and random, it seems to have been almost a whim. And none of those set free is known to have been a political prisoner. Some former victims of political repression were allowed to flee the country, but that seems more an attempt to silence opposition within the country than a signal of any new freedom to travel abroad.

Still, the relatively fresh change of administration is an opportunity for the Europeans to seize. If handled smartly and consistently, renewed contacts with the Turkmen leadership could help produce some actual changes on the ground.

The EU must maintain its insistence on its basic conditions before there can be talk of signing an Interim Trade Agreement with Turkmenistan, the preparation of which was undoubtedly the goal of Berdimuhammedov's state visit as well as a step towards a full Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.

Discussion of a trade agreement suddenly came to a halt last year after the International Trade Committee of the European Parliament adopted the resolution outlining its basic conditions: the International Committee of the Red Cross should be allowed to work freely in Turkmenistan, the educational system should be realigned with international standards, all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience should be released, government restrictions on travel abroad should be abolished, independent NGOs should be allowed to work unhindered, and UN human rights bodies should be permitted to operate freely in the country to monitor any progress.

The conditions are clear, verifiable and easy to meet. The International Committee of the Red Cross can testify on their ability to work freely in Turkmenistan, as can UN agencies. Human rights organisations can provide detailed lists of political prisoners to be released.

There is absolutely no reason today to back down from these basic, indeed fairly minimal, conditions. A change of leadership is not enough.

By inviting Berdimuhammedov to Brussels, the EU showed it believes change is possible. Following this visit, it should be clear to Turkmenistan's president that the next step is his.

The author is EU Advocacy Manager at the International Crisis Group, www.crisisgroup.org

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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