20 years have passed since Turkmenistan gained independence from the Soviet Union, yet despite an economy growing massively through the discovery of massive hydro carbon reserves the average life expectancy has barely budged.
In 1987 Turkmenistan’s GDP was $2,368,660,561. By 2009 this had grown to a whopping $19,947,368,421. In comparison life expectancy has gone from 62 in 1987 to just 65 in 2009. This has been consistently the lowest in the region.
The Council of the European Union has today announced that it has adopted a decision authorising the Commission to negotiate an agreement with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan on a legal framework for a Trans-Caspian (natural gas) Pipeline System.
Regardless it looks like the EU is committing itself down the energy road of reliance on large quantities of imported natural gas. A diversification away from Russia is a no brainer but holds with it infinite dangers. Interesting times ahead – watch this space.
Students in the UK sometimes complain that they have it tough. It is nothing however, compared to the trials that students face studying in Turkmenistan. I would like to see UK students taking to the streets to stand side-by-side with their Turkmen brothers.
The Turkmen authorities, in a recent “crack-down” have introduced a series of oppressive measures on teachers and students including:
Secondary school teachers are now required to be at work from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. each school day regardless of their class hours
University students are not to leave the university premises before 6 p.m. Those who live in dormitories must be in bed before 11 p.m. and are not permitted to do their homework after that time.
There was no reason given for these new measures from the notoriously authoritarian and erratic regime. Many within the Turkmen government fear grass-roots activism stemming from the academic minorities after up-risings across North Africa.
This all comes after Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov sacked the deputy prime minister Ashgabat Polytechnic Institute after a death earlier this month for failing to stop a party that led to the death of a female student.
These measures add to the already restrictive atmosphere in which academia operates. Students at Turkmen colleges and universities are not allowed to appear in foreign media, leave the country on vacation, drive a car, or use mobile phones on university premises. There is of course, little chance of protest within Turkmenistan. This is another right that Turkmen citizens do not enjoy.
Could we organise the NUS in this country to stand in solidarity with the students of Turkmenistan? Could we get the NUS to call for a reversal of these measures?
Education is something we take for granted. It is important to remember, that for many around the world the levels of education we receive in this country are merely an aspiration.
Berdymukhamedov does not always have such a good relationship with the international community
Just before Christmas, 2.5 million (80% of all users) mobile phones stopped working in Turkmenistan. Why? The government decided to “switch off” the operation of Mobile Telesystems (MTS) – a privately owned Moscow based phone operator. This left millions of citizens unable to communicate internally or internationally. This is just the latest in a line of obscure human rights violations to have occurred in Turkmenistan.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov came to power in Turkmenistan in 2007, with a promise to up-hold human rights. On paper it looks as if some progress has been made, but, in reality the legacy from dictator for life Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenbashi) lives on. Niyazov was the guy who:
Niyazov banned lip-synching, car radios, beards, and the playing of recorded music at weddings
Citizens with gold teeth were told to have them extracted
He shut rural libraries, saying that people in villages did not read
Opera was banned in 2001 as Niyazov declared: “Who needs Tosca or La Traviata any more?”
All hospitals outside the capital Ashgabat were closed and about 15,000 doctors were dismissed in 2005
Compulsory education was cut by a year so that students could not qualify to study abroad
In a recent wikileak Berdymukhamedov was described as “vain, fastidious, vindictive, a micro-manager, and a bit of an Ahal Teke “nationalist.” from the US embassy. Later in the same leak it states “Berdimuhamedov does not like people who are smarter than he is. Since he’s not a very bright guy, our source offered, he is suspicious of a lot of people.”
It looks as though Turkmenistan, with Berdymukhamedov at the helm is moving further and further away from the “west” and closer to isolation. There is no real sense of accountability. No one questions why the former Dentist operated on a patient to open a new hospital (no joke – see here). No one questions his legitimacy to do any of the things he has done. This is not good for Turkmen citizens, and it is not good for the international community.
Although I have highlighted some of the more bizarre aspect of modern Turkmenistan, it is important to remember it remains one of the oppressive countries in the world.
The question then remains, how do the international community try and engage with rogue leaders who shun all traditional forms of diplomacy? For this, there is no easy answer.
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.