As the European Union postpones a decision on a trade agreement with Turkmenistan, NBCentral Asia observers say the pressure needs to be sustained if any improvement in the human rights situation is to be achieved.
The European Parliament postponed a vote on the Interim Trade Agreement on March 26, saying the Turkmen authorities must first release political prisoners, providing access to prisons for external experts, remove restrictions on foreign travel and allow non-government groups freedom to operate.
If these conditions are not met, the European Parliament says it will adopt a new approach and cancel plans for the trade deal.
The parliament has refused to ratify the agreement with Turkmenistan for the last 11 years because the human rights situation was so dire, with political prisoners, persecution of dissidents, curbs on freedom of movement including blacklists of people barred from travelling, pressure on journalists and the lack of independent media.
When President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov came to power in 2007 after the death of the authoritarian Saparmurat Niazov, he announced reforms and started engaging with the West, raising hopes that things were about to get better.
The new Turkmen leader also encouraged trade and foreign investment. Trade data from 2007 suggest imports from European states, taken together, occupied third place behind Ukraine and Iran. European investors are also involved in Turkmenistan’s construction and oil and gas industries.
Analysts say the trade agreement would greatly increase the scale of trade and investment, so the EU’s refusal to sign it until certain steps are taken could have an effect. Human rights groups say that even if the changes are incremental, the international community should continue pressing for action.
Maria Lisitsyna, Central Asia researcher with the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, says countries engaging with Turkmenistan need to ensure that human rights are integral to their approach, and are included on the agenda of any high-level talks.
“It is essential that Turkmenistan’s international partners work from a position of principled engagement,” she said.
However, this approach will only be effective if the would be possible only if the same criteria are applied by EU member states, the United States, Japan and other countries involved in Turkmenistan.
Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Turkmen Helsinki Fund for Human Rights, based in Bulgaria, believes international organisations need to monitor human rights issues in detail, checking what has or has not been achieved on a regular basis, rather than making general statements.
If Turkmen leaders are held to account in this manner, she says, they will realise that “these demands [for improvement] are serious, and they might start meeting them”.
Begmedova would also like to see the international community offering Turkmenistan assistance in getting up to speed with the requirements of international law – something that was largely ignored in the Niazov years, the result being there is a shortage of experts.