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Wrong Time for EU to Go Soft on Turkmenistan

By Vyacheslav Mamedov
  • Human rights subcommittee discusses Turkmenistan at the European Parliament, October 9, 2012. (Photo: IWPR)
    Human rights subcommittee discusses Turkmenistan at the European Parliament, October 9, 2012. (Photo: IWPR)

The European Parliament is considering whether to ratify a trade deal with Turkmenistan, but it would be wrong to do so, as the country’s human rights record remains poor.

The parliament’s subcommittee on human rights met on October 9 to discuss Turkmenistan’s case. Human rights defenders from the Central Asian state – including myself – briefed members on the position.

The European Parliament has failed to ratify the trade agreement, citing concerns about human rights in Turkmenistan. The state continues to hold political prisoners, persecute dissidents, restrict the movement of anyone deemed politically suspect, prevent the emergence of independent media, and put pressure on independent journalists.

When it assented to an interim trade agreement in 2009, the European Parliament set a number of preconditions for ratification – the release of political prisoners, international access to prisons, the growth of civil society, media freedom, and the creation of new political parties.

No progress has been made in any of these areas. People are still detained for political reasons – independent Turkmen rights groups put the number at over 80. Freedom of movement is still restricted, with the blacklists expanded to include people prevented travelling freely within the country as well as abroad.

The Turkmen authorities are naturally keen to impress the international community by suggesting there have been changes for the better, such as the supposedly independent business newspaper Rysgal – in fact, just another mouthpiece for the regime.

In January a law was passed allowing new political parties to be set up. Coming just a month before the presidential election, there was no chance the law would allow parties to field candidates. (See More Talk of Pluralism in Turkmenistan.) Former minister Geldymyrat Nurmuhammedov tried to register a party, but he has since been punished for it. (Turkmen Ex-Minister Locked Up for "Treatment".)

The one new group that has been set up – the Industrialists’ and Entrepreneurs’ Party – is very much an instrument of the state, and local businessmen report being forced to sign up for it or else lose their operating licenses.

People who hold dual Russian and Turkmen nationality remain in a difficult position with an uncertain future.

Human rights defenders are totally against ratification of a trade agreement. They disagree with the view of certain members of the European Parliament that approving the deal would encourage the government to improved human rights and that refusing to do so would only isolate it further.

Turkmenistan ranks alongside countries like North Korea, Burma and Eritrea that have the least respect for democratic freedoms. Why, then, is the EU not prepared to sign this kind of agreement with them, yet appears willing to give the green light to Ashgabat? How does Turkmenistan differ from them? The argument that Turkmenistan wants to make progress, develop and expand its ties does not hold water. The regime has done nothing to meet the criteria already set by the European Parliament.

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

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