PRAGUE, October 16, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- RFE/RL sponsored a roundtable on Turkmenistan on the sidelines of the OSCE’s annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in early October. The OSCE event is touted as Europe’s largest human rights conference, bringing together representatives from government, civil society, and international organization. Some of the leading authorities on Turkmenistan were in Warsaw, although local NGO representatives were reportedly prevented from leaving Turkmenistan to attend an event where criticism of President Saparmurat Niyazov and his administration was bound to figure prominently.
Many participants in the RFE/RL roundtable conceded that Turkmenistan’s geostrategic importance has swelled along with its reputation for rights violations.
Critics complain that Turkmenistan retains some of the worst traits of the Soviet Union -- a heavy security-service presence, and a huge propaganda machine devoted to supporting the government and vilifying enemies.
Akhmukhammet Velsapar is a journalist who has long covered events in Turkmenistan. He said the roots of Central Asia’s sorriest administration can be found in Turkmenistan’s days as a Soviet republic:
"All that there is in Turkmenistan today, the worst situation if we compare all the former Soviet republics, has developed in Turkmenistan. And this didn’t just happen in one day," Velsapar said. "This was all going on for many years, and the roots of many current problems go back to the days of the Soviet Union."
There is more than just fawning official coverage to the carefully cultivated public image of President Niyazov -- or Turkmenbashi, as he prefers to be known. Attempts to portray the country as anything less than an oasis of prosperity and calm frequently meet with harassment -- or worse, according to rights campaigners.
RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova reported on deteriorating social conditions. The 58-year-old mother of three was soon arrested for allegedly possessing banned weapons, sentenced to years in jail at a summary trial, and reported dead in custody within a month. Turkmen authorities said Muradova died of natural causes. But family members reported seeing numerous injuries after viewing her body.
In A Strange Land
Tajigul Begmedova chairs the Bulgaria-based Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. She told the RFE/RL roundtable that Turkmen authorities frequently employ another form of Soviet punishment to perceived opponents: internal exile.
"They are sent to other provinces, to the north, or sent out of the capital," Begmedova said. "This is another mechanism they use against dissidents."
Critics often cite gaps between the law and official practice in Turkmenistan. For instance, religious freedom is guaranteed by Turkmenistan’s constitution. But in reality, only Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox are tolerated.
John Kinahan of the Norway-based rights group Forum 18 was in Warsaw. His group monitors religious freedom in many countries. He cited a cautionary case in which a Protestant told him of an attempt to assert his religious rights.
"One Turkmen Protestant who wrote anonymously for us a commentary on what he called the ’fictitious state of religious freedom’ commented actually that when he demanded that officials obey the law and the constitution, they were, in his words, in shock,’" Kinahan said.
Inculcation was an important tool in the hands of Soviet authorities. Detractors claim that it remains so in today’s Turkmenistan. "Rukhname" is one of the main subjects in Turkmenistan’s schools, at all levels.
The Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation’s Begmedova provided an idea of the results of this truncated curriculum: "You can see to what degree young people [are affected] -- and there are currently some 3 million of them, of the new generation, who do not know [chemist Dmitry] Mendeleyev, who do not know Nobel laureates, who do not know the classic literature of the world, but know only work of dubious substance of the so-called great Niyazov."
Begmedova said international isolation has left many people in Turkmenistan with a simple desire.
"It is the wish of many people [in Turkmenistan] to have even 30 minutes of a television channel to watch the real life that is happening in the world," Begmedova said.
No Official Presence In Warsaw
Critics in Warsaw were unopposed at any official level, since Turkmen authorities stayed away from the OSCE event on human rights.
Begmedova explained that Ashgabat does not appear to have found criticism at the event in 2005 very constructive.
"Last year, the ambassador of Turkmenistan came," Begmedova said. "He participated here with us. And after one week, when he returned to Turkmenistan, they fired him."
Western pressure has so far failed to significantly influence the Turkmen government. The country’s wealth of oil and natural gas, and its proximity to Iran, Afghanistan, and the Caspian Sea, make it an attractive partner for many businesses and governments.
Immune To Criticism?
But Forum 18’s John Kinahan told the roundtable audience that the situation is not hopeless. He argued that President Niyazov is not immune to international opinion, and has proven willing to listen to some parties.
"We do know that Niyazov is concerned about his image, and we do know that he is responsive to people raising questions with him," Kinahan said.
So while pressure at home is slight or nonexistent, the international community could step up its efforts to force reforms in Turkmenistan. The International Trade Committee of the European Parliament voted recently against a trade pact with Turkmenistan because of the country’s poor record on human rights.
But oil and gas reserves are likely to temper even the most hawkish of Turkmenistan’s critics, who concede that pressuring the current administration is a difficult feat.
By Bruce Pannier