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West Shows Little Interest in Turkmen Human Rights

By News Briefing Central Asia

As western engagement with Turkmenistan increases, there are concerns that human rights abuses are being ignored in pursuit of other interests.

In the latest sign of western interest in the Central Asia state, General James Mattis, commander of the United States military’s US Central Command, visited Ashgabat on January 11. Turkmen state media reported that he met President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov and discussed common security interests.

Human rights defenders based abroad say they understand the impetus to work more closely with Turkmenistan on regional security matters given its proximity to Afghanistan. But that does not mean other areas should be forgotten about.

“When it’s about expanding the [western] military presence or opening up land routes for NATO freight, everything is decided quickly with no delays,” a media-watcher in Ashgabat said. “Yet freedom, openness and rights – all things that are prized in developed countries – are left in the shadows.”

The international watchdog group Freedom House ranks Turkmenistan near the bottom in its listing “Freedom in the World 2011” listing, together with Burma, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, North Korea and Somali, where civil liberties and basic rights are trampled on.

Turkmen rights activists say there are thousands of political prisoners, the International Committee of the Red Cross is denied access to penal institutions, dissidents and independent journalists are repressed, non-government media and civic groups are banned, freedom of speech is denied and movement within the country as well as across borders is severely restricted.

“The only thing that’s left is western influence,” Tajigul Begmedova, leader of the Turkmen Helsinki Human Rights Fund, based in Bulgaria, said. “Turkmenistan is a member of many international organisations, and this membership obliges it to comply with international conventions. The West could use this to demand that Turkmenistan meet its commitments.”

Azhdar Kurtov, chief editor of “Problemy Natsionalnoy Strategii”, the journal of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, is sceptical about such expectations.

“We shouldn’t expect the Americans to back human rights in a country that frankly doesn’t have great prospects… in terms of a civilised view of democratic principles; and where a fairly traditionally-minded society tends to put up with the pressure exerted by a totalitarian government,” Kurtov said. “Why bash one’s head against a brick wall? Best to go about things circuitously and get at least something out of cooperation.”

Nurmuhamet Khanamov, head of the émigré Republican Party based in Vienna, says the Turkmen authorities are more than happy to deal with the West on terms like these.

“They’ve got a good handle on western policy, where economic and geopolitical interests take precedence and human rights and democratic development are of secondary importance,” Khanamov said.

A civil society activist in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat was similarly pessimistic.

“We’ve grown tired,” he said. “Our hopes that the democratic [international] community would nudge the government toward improvements in the human rights situation proved unfounded.”

This article was produced as part of IWPR’s News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.

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