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Turkmenistan Human Rights OSCE
Source: http://www.eurasianet.org/
Source Date: Friday, October 15, 2010
Focus: Electronic and Mobile Government
Country: Turkmenistan
Created: Oct 17, 2010

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov made a state visit to Qatar October 11-12 where he was received by the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who praised the Turkmen leader for his reforms and said how impressed Arab business people were with Turkmenistan's economic achievements. Qatar is a natural partner for Turkmenistan as a Muslim country with a common culture and religion, and as a model for an authoritarian country that permits some reforms but keeps its leaders in power.

As Western analysts have noted, unlike other oil-rich nations in the Middle East, Qatar has allowed some women to take public office, and has tended to invest more in education and infrastructure than yachts and airplanes for the royal family. Qatar also founded the very popular Al-Jazeera television station, a model whose production values (although not criticism) President Berdymukhamedov, constantly aggravated over the poor performance of his state-controlled broadcasting system, might like to copy. Doha also serves as a frequent venue for international conferences, including peace talks for the warring parties of Sudan, and Ashgabat also aspires to a similar role in Central Asia.

The Emir of Qatar and Turkmen leader talked about oil and gas projects and also other investments in telecommunications, transportation, the textile and chemical industries, and of course the Turkmen president's pet project, the Avaza tourist zone on the Caspian Sea coast. Ashgabat needs cash after the loss of a lot of gas purchases from its former largest customer, Russia, and Qatar, which already has businesses in Turkmenistan and has donated to charities, is likely to become an important partner. President Berdymukhamedov called for the formation of an intergovernmental commission and regular meetings between the foreign ministries.

The European Union is currently debating the finalization of its trade agreement with Turkmenistan, after dropping human rights conditions earlier this year in an interim agreement and signing a Memorandum of Understanding on gas pipelines. Like other world leaders praising President Berdymukhamedov's reforms, the EU is accentuating the ostensible restoration of the education system destroyed under past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov and stressing modest improvements like the introduction of Internet cafes.

But as an op-ed piece by the Open Society Foundations (OSF) in Brussels notes this week, what the Turkmen leader gives with one hand, he takes away with another. Students aspiring to study abroad have been denied departure and some only permitted to leave after a year of foreign protests. The Internet is heavily controlled and dissident sites are blocked. Despite discussions earlier this year about permitting another political party to participate in the country’s political processes, only the one ill-named Democratic Party controlled by the state remains. The problem with compromising with the authoritarian regime of Turkmenistan by overlooking oppression and over-praising very modest changes is that the government's arbitrariness can be used against one at any time. While the state continues to block people's departure abroad on a whim, or refuse registration to a civic group, the same can happen to foreign businesses, as much as the government claims to want their investment, because there is no rule of law or independent judiciary. [Editor’s note: EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of OSF.]

A stark indication of the abusiveness of the Turkmen government came last week with its pressure on the Secretary General and Vienna-based secretariat of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Two Turkmen activists who sought entry to the OSCE Review Conference in Warsaw were blocked when Ashgabat protested, even though they had previously attended similar OSCE meetings for 6 and 7 years, respectively. Annandurdy Hajiev, head of the Watan (Fatherland) movement, and Nurmuhammet Hanamov, founder of the Republican Party in exile were denied entry to the meeting and forced to appeal.

A diplomatic chase ensued, with Western ambassadors from the U.S., EU, Norway, Canada, and Switzerland protesting the move on a point of order, citing past precedents that stipulated that NGOs could be denied registration only if they could be shown to have used or advocated violence or terrorism. Nearly three days went by while the current French Secretary General of OSCE, Marc Perrin de Brichambaut, received high-level interventions and consulted with Turkmenistan. Meanwhile, ambassadors representing the Kazakhstan chair-in-office stood idly by, ducking any decision-making responsibility about the Turkmen NGOs by referring to what Western diplomats characterized as a misreading of a July 2010 OSCE Permanent Council decision for dispute arbitration.

Ultimately, Hajiev was allowed into the meeting, where he spoke critically about both the delay and about the internal situation in Turkmenistan, but Hanamov was denied registration, possibly on grounds that he supposedly was related to a past coup attempt although no formal reason was provided. As he has political asylum in Austria, both he and Hajiev vowed to try again to register for the next round of the Review Conference in Vienna, which opens October 18. Like other exiled dissidents living abroad, they are uncertain about their travel to Astana for the final round of the review meeting, after Kazakh officials alternated between telling them they couldn't vouch for their security to intimating that they would have to be constantly accompanied by Kazakh security agents during their stay. Turkmenistan has routinely boycotted the OSCE human rights meetings for years, leaving its chair empty, and has threatened not to come to Astana and refuse to sign the final summit document if the Turkmen NGOs are permitted to attend.

Turkmenistan's petulant grandstanding over the OSCE meetings is in stark contrast with its constant claims of successes in regional and international diplomacy. Yet even more ominous is what happened to a third activist who resides in Vienna and decided not to try to come to Warsaw when he saw the difficulties his colleagues encountered. Farid Tuhbatullin, head of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and chrono-tm.org website, discovered last week that his site was hacked and disabled just as he was trying to publish stories about the OSCE meeting. Worse, through sources that requested anonymity, he learned that the Turkmen Ministry of State Security was making a deliberate threat against his life, vowing to heed a recent presidential directive to "become warriors against those who defame our secular law-based state" and arrange an assassination that would "look like a car accident or a heart attack."

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch immediately issued an alert calling on Austria and other OSCE members to protest the threats to Tuhbatullin. As the EU contemplates the finalizing of its trade agreement and the prospects for hooking up the Turkmen gas lines to the Nabucco project to end Russian dependency, and as various other business deals such as France's proposal to sell drones to Turkmenistan are discussed, the human rights values of Europe will be sorely tested. A war of attrition may ensue in the coming months that will involve protracted negotiations about interpreting various obscure paragraphs in OSCE protocols, as well as reviewing Turkmenistan's fabricated Interpol requests and the decisions of courts in EU countries to grant asylum to Turkmen exiles. It's not certain that the NGOs will come out the winners.

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