Interim Trade Agreement on the Agenda
For years, a widespread consensus developed that the country's leader, president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov – who styles himself 'Turkmenbashi', or father of all Turkmen – is an autocratic ruler, wrecking his country and oppressing his people.
Criticism of his authoritarian government is not restricted to non-governmental organisations such as Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group. The United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have regularly criticised the country's appalling human rights record and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has suspended all public sector engagement with Turkmenistan over such concerns. What everyone seem to agree on is that Turkmenistan is one of the world's most repressive states.
Radical change of direction
It thus comes as a huge shock that the European Union is moving to break ranks and cosy up to the pariah government. On 21 March, the European Parliament's international trade committee approved a report on the European Commission's proposal for the EU to conclude an interim trade agreement with Turkmenistan, after receiving a positive opinion the day before from the Parliament's foreign affairs committee. The full Parliament will vote on the report in the 26-27 April mini-plenary.
This is a radical change of direction. For seven years, the EU was firmly in the mainstream of international thinking. In 2003, the European Parliament even adopted a resolution deploring the fact that Turkmenistan "has acquired one of the worst totalitarian systems in the world" and rightly refused to conclude an interim agreement with Turkmenistan because of the government's abysmal human rights record.
Maybe the committees thought few would notice this change of tack. After all, the rare blips Turkmenistan receives in the international media tend to focus on Niyazov's more bizarre decisions: renaming months of the calendar after himself and his mother (2002); banning gold teeth (2004); banning recorded music (2005), and; declaring that those who read his book of nation-building and spirituality, the Rukhnama, aloud three times will go straight to heaven (2006).
Almost comical, but not amusing
It almost seems comical, but, of course, it is not at all amusing for those who live there.
Niyazov's government tolerates no dissent, allows no media or political freedoms and has driven into exile or imprisoned political opposition, human rights defenders, independent journalists and certain religious believers, especially followers of faiths other than Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy. Some dissidents have been forcibly committed to psychiatric hospitals. Torture, including beatings and the use of psychotropic drugs, is rampant in police custody and detention facilities.
In 2004, in an attempt to decrease foreign influences, a new law invalidated all higher education degrees received outside the country since 1993 and dismissed all such degree-holders from state jobs. In February 2005, Niyazov ordered the closure of rural libraries, arguing that they served no purpose since no one in villages could read.
And this is the partner the EU wants to work closely with?
Abysmal human rights record
The European Parliament professes itself well aware of, and indeed profoundly concerned by, Turkmenistan's abysmal human rights record, but that doesn't appear to have put it off seeking closer links with the Niyazov government. On the contrary, the Parliament claims that the reason for seeking these ties is to try to improve respect for human rights in the country. Is it simply being disingenuous?
How can the Parliament proudly claim that in order to increase its leverage it will include a human rights clause that could be used to invoke the suspension of the agreement in the case of human rights violations? If it was serious, the very notion of including such a clause would negate the signing of the agreement in the first place. What kind of violation does it take to suspend an agreement established in the face of such egregious abuses as loss of life, torture and disappearances? Another few hundred people massacred, as in neighbouring Uzbekistan?
But the most ridiculous justification is the Parliament's concern about not wanting to isolate Turkmenistan – an idea apparently backed by some in the European Commission and the Council of Ministers. Over the years, Niyazov has himself gone to extremes to create one of the world's most closed states, and an EU interim agreement is not going to change that any more than it will make the government more democratic or respectful of basic human rights. And any trade with Turkmenistan would only fill the pockets of the man who has condemned his people to ever increasing poverty.
The very idea of dealing with this government is as absurd as Niyazov's claim to be a prophet. Fortunately, there is still time for the European Parliament to stop this madness. When the interim trade proposal comes before a plenary session, the Parliament must reject it with full force. To do otherwise would make a complete mockery of Europe's claim to support democracy and human rights around the world and would severely undermine Europe's credibility in international affairs.
Tanya Cox/Andrew Stroehlein
© International Crisis Group 2006
Tanya Cox is EU advocacy co-ordinator for Human Rights Watch. Andrew Stroehlein is media director for the International Crisis Group.
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