It seems fitting that opaque is the best word to describe Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s just-concluded visit to the City of Light.
The Turkmen president visited Paris on February 1-2, holding abundant discussions with French political leaders and business executives, without producing any significant deals. Originally, Berdymukhamedov had planned to stay in France for a third day, which would have been dedicated to visiting industrial sites outside of Paris. But that part of the program was cancelled and the Turkmen leader departed early for Ashgabat.
In 2007, during the run-up to the presidential election, French President Nicholas Sarkozy was said to proclaim: «To be silent is to be an accomplice, and I don’t want to be any dictator’s accomplice.» Yet on February 1, Sarkozy was at the Palais de l’Élysée to welcome Berdymukhamedov, a man who democratization advocates depict as one of the worst tyrants on the planet.
Human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), were critical of the French government’s willingness to host Berdymukhamedov. An HRW statement, released January 28, described Turkmenistan as one of the «most repressive countries in the world,» where «the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, movement, and religion are subject to draconian restrictions.»
«Hosting Turkmenistan’s president comes with a duty to speak out about abuses there, and to press for concrete improvements,» the HRW statement quoted Veronika Szente Goldston, HRW’s advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, as saying. «President Sarkozy needs to send a clear message that respect for human rights is at the core of France’s engagement with Turkmenistan.»
Sarkozy does not appear to have sent any such message. During a working lunch on February 1, the French president focused on enhancing bilateral economical cooperation. Sarkozy also raised regional security issues, including the Afghanistan insurgency, the fight against drug trafficking and energy exports. A joint statement issued by the two presidents offered no hints on whether Sarkozy made any progress in several areas of regional importance, including securing Turkmenistan’s broader participation in the Northern Distribution Network, a resupply line for US and NATO troops in Afghanistan that traverses Central Asian states, or in encouraging Ashgabat to make a firm commitment to exporting natural gas via a planned, Western-backed pipeline network across the Caspian Sea. [Click here to see the joint statement].
The joint statement concluded with an official invitation issued by Berdymukhamedov for Sarkozy to visit Turkmenistan. The French president provisionally accepted the invitation, with the date of visit to be set according to future diplomatic discussions.
On February 2, Berdymukhamedov signed six minor agreements with French Prime Minister Francois Fillon. The agreements focused mainly on fostering bilateral economic ties, with one establishing a bilateral intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation. Another agreement sought to expand intergovernmental cooperation on culture, education, science and technology.
Berdymukhamedov made a point of meeting with plenty of French business executives. But he apparently had little to say that French titans of industry and commerce hadn’t already heard before. On February 2, the Turkmen leader participated in a Business Forum and delivered a luncheon address to French executives at the Hotel Ritz on the Place Vendome. Some attendees expressed disappointment with the presentation. «Berdymukhamedov delivered a quite general speech,» one participant said.
Berdymukhamedov also attended a dinner on February 1 hosted by Martin Bouygues, the CEO of the French construction group bearing his family name. Bouygues is also said to be a close personal friend of Sarkozy. The Bouygues group has been involved in a variety of lucrative construction contracts in Turkmenistan for much of the Central Asian nation’s existence. The guest list for the dinner was limited mainly to executives affiliated directly or indirectly to the construction conglomerate.
A French diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Berdymukhamedov had pressed hard for an invitation to come to Paris. «Berdymukhamedov asked for the visit,» the diplomat said.
An executive familiar with the chatter that goes on between France’s business community and government officials said that Bouygues did not try to pull any strings on behalf of Berdymukhamedov. «They [Bouygues] want to remain discrete about their activities in Turkmenistan. So, they didn’t do anything to make it [the visit] reality. But then, when the trip was decided, they worked to control it,» the source said.
The visit was hardly an exercise in transparency. Prior to Berdymukhamedov’s appearance, journalist complained bitterly about being kept in the dark about the Turkmen leader’s itinerary. «The program of the visit was continuously changed and no information was accessible from French authorities,» said Elsa Vidal of the Paris-based watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders. «There are no reasons to keep this visit secret. That’s another concession made by the French to the Turkmen dictatorship.»
James Delly Editor’s Note: James Delly is the pseudonym for a Kazakhstan-based freelance reporter and analyst.
Источник :: EurasiaNet