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Turkmenistan: Slippery Foundation For Energy Trade

  • Bruce Pannier --> Turkmenistan sits atop huge oil and gas reserves (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) As gas and oil prices spiral upward, fuel-dependant states are scrambling to find new sources of hydrocarbon energy supplies. But as energy-hungry countries seek out new oil and gas suppliers, some are troubled by the reputations of governments in one of the most promising regions -- countries like Turkmenistan, for instance.

PRAGUE, September 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan has some of the largest supplies of natural gas in the world and an abundance of oil. Many potential partners are interested in buying that fuel. So some might ask: What's the holdup?

Exports routes remain a problem. But for a lot of critics, buying anything from Turkmenistan carries a heavy price.

Many rights groups have spent a lot of time detailing rights violations under the administration of the autocratic Turkmen president, Saparmurat Niyazov.

One is the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF).

"There isn't any press freedom at all. There isn't hardly any civil society. There are some independent groups, but only ones that are working on very politically innocuous topics," IHF Executive Director Aaron Rhodes describes Turkmenistan. "So you can't say that there's anything like an independent human rights organization that's allowed to exist in Turkmenistan. The courts are completely dependent on the executive branch, so the right to a fair trial doesn't exist in Turkmenistan. There's no free media, there's no freedom of expression and information. There's evidence that torture is used there to extract confessions by which people are convicted of crimes."

Watchful Eyes

President Niyazov has led Turkmenistan for more than 20 years -- dating back to when it was a Soviet republic. He has imposed a cult-like presence since the country gained independence in 1991, and government repression has invited comparisons with North Korea.

The government tolerates little or no dissent from its citizens, according to Erika Dailey, the director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project.

"People have been beaten, put under house arrest, interrogated, harassed, exiled, deported," Dailey says. "The list goes on and on."

All media outlets in the country are state controlled, with a small army of censors tracking what gets reported. As a result, much of the news is about President Niyazov and the purported successes of the state. Only a very few outside sources of information penetrate the country.

Dailey says this is exactly what the Turkmen government wants.

"Because of the information vacuum and full censorship, the government of Turkmenistan essentially keeps its own people ignorant of what is going on outside in the world," Dailey says. "And that essentially eliminates any sort of frame of reference, any sort of basis for comparison of their lives with the lives of those around them."

Captive Resource

The international community has at least snippets of information about daily events inside Turkmenistan, however. The picture that emerges is not necessarily encouraging. But challenges can even mount for citizens who are careful not to antagonize the authorities.

Despite billions of dollars of revenue from gas and oil sales, there is little evidence that such wealth is trickling down. The IHF's Rhodes points out that even children are expected to pitch in when it's needed -- like at harvest time.

"Another serious issue in Turkmenistan is children's rights and the exploitation of children to manage the cotton harvest," Rhodes says.

The Turkmenistan Project's Dailey says it is not just the very young who are victims of government policies. The beleaguered include the elderly, too.

"Pensions in the last year were either significantly reduced or in some cases eliminated entirely, leaving pensioners who were barely able to make do on their pensions, as it was in an absolutely exit-less situation where there have been numerous reports of the elderly committing suicide, having heart attacks, simply not being able to survive without that pension," Dailey says.

Health-care services have been drastically curtailed. Reports have emerged suggesting Turkmenistan is not buying medicines from abroad -- not even from its fellow CIS states.

Outside Looking In

How does a government with a record like Turkmen's stay in power? Dailey provides one of the most widely accepted explanations among analysts.

"It's a long-standing allegation from some independent quarters that some bilateral and multilateral actors are in fact engaging the Turkmenistan government rather gently -- or, rather, more gently than their human rights practices would warrant -- because they feel the need to give priority to their longer-term energy security and geopolitical interests," Dailey says. "There is certainly, unfortunately, reason to believe that."

It is unclear whether an easing of the most repressive policies by the Turkmen authorities might quiet critics who say the international community should shun business ties with such a regime.

But it could prove difficult to influence a state that has demonstrated such low regard for international opinion.

U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, a republican from Kansas, told RFE/RL the world community must remain watchful for opportunities to try to curb some of the Turkmen government's domestic abuses.

"You have to find points of time when you can bring legitimate pressure to bear, and those usually come when the Turkmen themselves, the government, is looking for some support, some access to the international community," Brownback says. "And those are the points in time when we really have more ability then to press these issues."

Such moments have been rare. But a desire on both sides to open new export routes for Turkmen hydrocarbon resources could provide such a window -- highlighting an area where Turkmenistan arguably needs international cooperation.

The question is whether the desire for profit can provide sufficient incentive for change to sway the Turkmen government's critics.