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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Asia > Central Asia > Turkmenistan > Repression and Regression in Turkmenistan: A New International Strategy

Repression and Regression in Turkmenistan: A New International Strategy

Asia Report N°85 4 Nov 2004


Sapamurad Niyazov's Turkmenistan, one of the world's most repressive regimes, has not responded to quiet diplomacy, modifying a few policies only when faced with a threat of sanctions or other punitive action. In failing to take a strong stand against widespread human rights abuses and the plundering of the country's wealth, the international community has prioritised short term economic and security benefits. Given the longer-term risks of serious instability if the trends are not reversed, however, a firmer line is needed. International organisations and concerned governments should forge agreement on a list of key reform benchmarks and start working much more actively for real change.

Heavy ideological indoctrination and destruction of the education system suggest that Turkmenistan’s problems will not end whenever Niyazov leaves the scene. The economy is becoming brittle, despite oil and gas, and the eventual political succession could well be violent.

Since an alleged assassination attempt on him in 2002, there has been increased repression, and the president has further concentrated power in his own hands. He controls the political system absolutely and has introduced the cult of his personality, through his quasi-spiritual guide, the Ruhnama, into every aspect of life. He has personal use of revenue from lucrative oil and gas reserves, and much of the money goes into grandiose construction projects. No opposition political activity is permitted, there is no independent media, and increased pressure has forced most NGOs to close.

Although Turkmenistan has huge gas reserves, misuse of revenue threatens long-term economic stability. Budgetary problems have already forced cuts in health and social services. Much of the population lives in poverty, while a small elite earns vast incomes from the energy sector. The private sector is very small, the agricultural sector is in crisis, and perhaps a majority of young people are unemployed.

A reform of the education system has cut schooling opportunities and introduced an array of ideological courses that restrict the chances of children. Higher education is increasingly difficult to obtain and is limited to two years. An increasingly ill-educated, ideologically indoctrinated generation will be unprepared to take on responsibilities.

The decline of state institutions and lack of unity within the political elite virtually ensure that succession will be difficult. There is a strong possibility of internal dissent and possibly violence around a struggle for power. Since much of the population one way or another is highly dependent on the state, even a short period of disorder could lead to a real humanitarian crisis.

The international response to Turkmenistan has been weak and poorly coordinated. Niyazov has successfully played different states and organisations against each other. Russia is his most influential partner because almost all gas exports pass through its pipelines but its response to repeated humiliations of Russian government officials and overt discrimination against ethnic Russians has been remarkably weak. A few parliamentarians have spoken out against Niyazov but mostly the lure of cheap gas has kept Moscow silent about the worst abuses.

The U.S. has been more critical but its stance has been made ambiguous by its security and geopolitical interests. The EU has increased aid and is talking about engagement with the regime, apparently without conditioning these steps on policy changes.

International organisations have also sent mixed signals. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) appointed a special rapporteur, but his hard-hitting report has not been followed up with strong action. NATO has expanded cooperation in 2004 despite the incompatibility of regime behaviour with its democratic principles. Several UN agencies have been reluctant to criticise the regime but UN human rights bodies have begun to take a stronger stance that deserves support and follow-up.

Most international financial institutions have cut involvement to a minimum, as the regime refuses to consider any economic reform, but foreign businesses continue to get support from their governments while investing in lucrative projects which promote the president's cult of personality.


To the Russian Federation:

1.  Link economic deals with the Turkmen government to improvements in a number of issues including:

a) expansion of Russian-language schooling and Russian-language media, including access to publications from Russia and the resumption of broadcasting by Radio Mayak;

b) rescinding of decisions limiting the employment of graduates of Russian universities;

c) reintroduction of dual citizenship; and

d) freedom of travel for Turkmen citizens within the Commonwealth of Independent States.

2.  Offer a special program of higher education for Turkmen students, permitting them access to Russian universities, and provide extra schooling to qualify them if necessary.

3.  Coordinate with the EU and U.S. and work within the UN and OSCE on initiatives to improve human rights and encourage political change.

To the U.S. and EU:

4.  Agree on a list of key benchmarks to be met within a twelve-month period, including:

a) freedom of travel for Turkmen citizens;

b) repeal of legislation restricting the activities of NGOs;

c) access to prisons, including to political prisoners, for the ICRC and other independent monitors, and cooperation with UN human rights rapporteurs;

d) permission for international organisations to conduct education programs up to and including university-level and cooperation with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education; and

e) an end to harassment of independent religious communities, and the release of prisoners of conscience.

5.  Prepare a series of graduated and targeted political and financial measures to be implemented if these benchmarks are not met, including:

a) restricting diplomatic attendance at government functions that involve overt celebration of the Niyazov personality cult;

b) refusing visas to leading government officials, advisers, and top businesspeople; and

c) freezing assets of key government officials, advisers and top businesspeople in European and U.S. banks.

6.  Deny government political backing and economic support (export guarantees and loans) to companies that refuse to sign up to a minimal list of good practices, such as disclosure of investment arrangements.

To the U.S.:

7.  Declare Turkmenistan a "country of particular concern" under the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act if the situation does not improve meaningfully before mid-2005.

8.  Monitor travel and emigration from the country and make clear to the government that there will be no further Jackson-Vanik waiver unless there is real freedom of movement for Turkmen citizens.

To the EU:

9.  Establish strict conditions for any increase of aid to the regime, reflecting the recommendations of the OSCE Rapporteur on Turkmenistan, and the UNCHR.

To the UN Commission on Human Rights:

10.  Appoint a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Turkmenistan, request the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education to report to the Commission on the education system, and press the government to cooperate with the rapporteurs.

To international organisations and donors:

11.  Consult together to develop common and coordinated strategies and approaches, involving the following elements:

a) aid should be strictly confined to areas that directly benefit the population, such as health and education;

b) health assistance should aim particularly to assist Turkmen institutions combat infectious diseases and the growing drugs and HIV problem;

c) any possibilities for engagement with Turkmen educational institutions should be taken and alternative educational possibilities outside the country should be developed further, including special scholarship funds;

d) major international broadcasters such as Radio Liberty, Voice of America, BBC and Deutsche Welle should initiate or expand programs in the Turkmen language;

e) publishing ventures outside the country should be supported to enable writers and intellectuals to publish in Turkmen; and

f) media training should aim to develop a core of competent Turkmen-language journalists at international radio stations.

Osh/Brussels, 4 November 2004