Leading officials in Turkmenistan began a series of meetings this fall with leaders of democratic countries and international organizations, starting with the UN General Assembly in New York. After the death of the dictator and “president-for-life” Saparmurat Niyazov, the new leaders declared a commitment to fundamental change. But all they took was a few first steps before everyone declared Niyazov’s successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, a reformer.
Turkmenistan isn’t the only country in the world with a totalitarian government that promises its people and international partners alike that it will embark on democratic change. These promises — and the several positive steps of the new Turkmen leadership — have made Turkmenistan’s international partners optimistic that real change is on the way.
Every time a dictatorial government undertakes such an initiative, optimists rush to say that these are steps toward democracy and human rights. Then international organizations remove sanctions, renew cooperation treaties or, in the case of Turkmenistan and the European Union, approve an important trade agreement.
Once they achieve that “recognition” and obtain certain benefits, these governments either freeze the movement toward democracy or renew their totalitarian policies.
After initial promises and reforms, the Turkmen leadership has backslid considerably. The international community, and particularly the United States, should make a corresponding shift in its approach to the country.
One Step Forward, Two Back
The government initially promised to broaden Internet use. The first step was to open more Internet cafes and make it possible for people to connect to the Web from their homes. The second step should have been to allow non-state entities to become Internet providers so that Internet access could spread around the country.
But instead, the government’s second step was to introduce total control over the Internet by blocking many websites, requiring visitors to present their passports at Internet cafes, and continuing to monitor electronic communications. Instead of opening web access, it introduced new, more restrictive rules for contracts between Internet users and the state Internet provider.
Another first step toward freedom of information was to allow ministries and government agencies to subscribe to specialized foreign periodicals, which are much in demand but banned under Niyazov. People expected that the second step would be to allow everyone to subscribe to foreign newspapers and magazines.
But this never happened, and the situation got worse. Private newspaper salesmen once imported foreign periodicals from neighboring Uzbekistan and sold them at markets. Now border guards confiscate all foreign printed matter. Merchants can only sell media published in Turkmenistan. The government also cracked down on private satellite antennas, which people used to watch foreign television stations.
In education, Berdymukhamedov’s “first step” was to lengthen the required number of years of study in secondary and higher education institutions, which had been reduced during the Niyazov era, and to slightly increase the number of slots in higher education and specialist establishments. The government also indicated it would establish relations with educational institutions abroad, an essential move given the piteous state of the education system under Niyazov.
But as its second step, the authorities put up several obstacles to initiate a European Union program to modernize Turkmenistan’s professional education, even denying visas to EU staff working on the program. Over the summer, the government barred hundreds of young men and women from leaving the country to study abroad in foreign private universities.
Political Freedoms Curtailed
After Niyazov’s death, the government released a few political prisoners and victims of miscarriage of justice. Among them was the former mufti, or religious leader, of Turkmenistan. But there continues to be no information about others who may have been unjustly imprisoned, no effort to re-examine the cases against them, and no access to places of detention for international monitoring groups.
As for other civil and political freedoms, like the development of political, religious, and trade union organizations, the government never bothered to even make any promises regarding this, let alone take any first steps. So despite the promises, Turkmenistan isn’t moving forward with democratization. Even in the rosiest light, it’s standing still.
Recent indications that Turkmenistan’s natural gas reserves are perhaps not as large as initially advertised could persuade energy-hungry Western countries to close their eyes to the human rights violations. But the Obama administration has also indicated it wants to do the right thing. Washington should think about inviting Turkmenistan’s leader for a high-level and high-profile visit, while setting out certain human rights prerequisites before the visit would take place. Another incentive could be promising to support Turkmenistan in its difficult regional relationships with Russia and Azerbaijan.
This kind of pressure — by the United States, other foreign governments, and international organizations that are Turkmenistan’s main partners — can push the country toward taking those “second steps” on the path to human rights.