Turkmenistan is one of those countries you may just about have heard of in the UK. It’s in Central Asia, it borders the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Afghanistan. It was ruled until a few years ago by President for life Niyazov (aka Türkmenbaşy). He has been replaced by former health minister, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.
Human Rights Watch has described Turkmenistan as “one of the most repressive and authoritarian” countries in the world. Freedom House has included Turkmenistan in their 2009 “Worst of the Worst” list for social and political freedoms alongside Saudi Arabia and North Korea. There are regular disappearances, reports of torture and harassment of journalist, environmentalist and human rights defenders. You get the idea; it is a pretty dark place.
Despite this, the EU is going to extraordinary lengths to court Turkmenistan into trading with them. Why…? Gas!
The EU’s flagship energy security project (after deciding they couldn’t trust the Russians anymore) was the Nabucco pipeline. The pipeline is planned to traverse four countries (Turkey, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria before terminating in Austria). It will be over 3,000 km long and is expected to cost around 8 billion Euros (wait and watch as this figure will inevitably rise). After sorting out some legality this summer, the only issue stopping the project going full-steam ahead is the issue of supply. Who has gas, and is willing to sell it to the EU. Iran is an obvious answer, but the US soon put their foot down there. Iraq looks possible, but the internal fighting between the north and Baghdad may prove to be an issue). Azerbaijan will almost certainly be providing some but does not have the capacity for much more than a third of the pipelines capacity. This leaves the EU without many options other than Turkmenistan.
So this is the issue, does the EU provide wealth and fortune to a leader (who keeps his power through natural resource revenues) and secure the EU with another gas supply – this would fulfil their aim of diversifying (partially) their gas supply. Or do they stand up for the Human Rights, development and democracy issues that they are committed to uphold? Is it possible to do both?
I feel as though it is important to approach this from a pragmatic position, what action by the EU might improve life for the average Joe in Turkmenistan? We can see that previous attempts to isolate Turkmenistan have not bought about the sort of changes we would like to see. Indeed, no real improvements (other than on paper) have been observed in Turkmenistan in the last two decades (despite what they would have us believe in their hearing at the UPR). It would be very easy for the EU to sit on its high horse and criticise the Turkmens human rights record. This however, would lose our strategic aim of securing their gas supply and secondly would probably make no difference for those who are currently suffering human rights abuses.
I am personally not sure what the answer to this is, but my former colleague Neil Endicott has just published a report (http://www.quaker.org/qcea/energysecurity/The_Nabucco_Gas_Pipeline.pdf) arguing that the EU should engage with Turkmenistan. It should do this he argues, by “seeking to engage the Turkmen government in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a scheme which addresses resource revenue management issues and provides protected space for independent civil society groups to operate”.
This scheme is still relatively young. I feel as though it’s a long shot at best. It is however, by far the most appealing prospect when the other options are to engage and sell out, or to isolate and tacitly accept the human rights situation in Turkmenistan. I cannot see any other option which is more likely to improve life for the population of Turkmenistan. I think it could be worth a shot.