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Turkmenistan: President Shows Toughness, But Little Political Skill

  • Michael Lelyveld



Washington, 23 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- On his first official visit to the United States, Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov this week showed the political toughness that has made him famous but little of the political skill it takes to deal with Washington.

Niyazov's answers to persistent questions about human rights in his country were frank and much the same as those he has given at home. In responding to an audience at Johns Hopkins University in Washington on Tuesday, he made little effort to tailor his remarks to American listeners. The Turkmenbashi, or head of the Turkmens, was put on the spot because of the arrest last week of former Foreign Minister Avdy Kuliev in Ashgabat, after returning from Moscow.

Niyazov said he first learned of Kuliev's detention from questions posed during a session on Monday at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Afterwards, he said he ordered that Kuliev be freed, despite accusations that he had tried to organize a coup.

(Kuliyev, a Russian citizen, has since returned to Moscow from Ashgabat. He told RFE/RL on Wednesday from his home in Moscow that an official from the Russian embassy accompanied him to Ashgabat airport. He said he was told by the embassy officials that Turkmenistan and Russia agreed he should leave the country in order to avoid turmoil.)

But Niyazov seemed to lack any of the persuasive powers of Azerbaijan President Heydar Aliyev, who was asked similar questions about human rights in his country during a Washington visit last July. It also seemed that Niyazov saw little need to persuade anyone.

Like Aliyev, Niyazov argued briefly that freedom will come to Turkmenistan at its own pace, after the primary goal of independence and stability is assured. But unlike Aliyev, the Turkmenbashi seemed to care little about appearances or U.S. perceptions.

When asked about the freedom to form opposition parties, he said the law in Turkmenistan would allow it, but only if they have "certain programs." He argued that the record of allowing dissenting parties in other former Soviet republics was poor. "All they are able to do is criticize and throw stones," he said.

He also said he had released eight political prisoners whose freedom was requested by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but that most of them were "drug dealers," anyway.

Niyazov evidently sees no need to change his style in the United States. He presumes that he has something so valuable to offer the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton that it will be prepared to look the other way. He may be right, but he is also tempting fate.

Turkmenistan offers rich rewards to U.S. oil companies and strategic position for the Clinton administration, which needs to line up Niyazov's support for its trans-Caspian pipeline plans. But neglect of Washington's concerns for human rights cannot be taken past the point of public embarrassment. The administration will accept that reforms may be gradual. It is another question if it is forced to conclude that democracy can not take place under Niyazov at all.

Just as there are minimum standards of human rights to be met, there is also a minimum effort required for deception. If Niyazov cannot be bothered with U.S. expectations, he can hardly expect that his own concerns will get much of a hearing here.

Niyazov may also be in danger of overestimating his country's importance to the U.S. administration. It is very likely that the Unocal Corp. project to pipe Turkmen gas through Afghanistan is a factor in UN Ambassador Bill Richardson's efforts to start peace talks there. Vice President Al Gore has also paid attention by writing to encourage a resolution of Caspian border disputes between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.

But U.S. investments in Turkmenistan are still small compared with those in Azerbaijan, and the interest in Ashgabat must still be seen as secondary to the more developed engagement with Baku. Niyazov's neglect of U.S. concerns on rights and reform can only be seen as a setback, even by business, which needs no additional hurdles to overcome.

While foreign leaders may bristle at U.S. demands as infringements on their sovereignty, visits to Washington have become opportunities to showcase their progress on the international stage. While business will go on, any personal commitment from US leaders to Niyazov seems improbable if he shows disregard for US aims.

In that respect, the Turkmenbashi's failure at least to put a better face on his human rights practices is puzzling. Despite his tough talk, Niyazov has anxiously pursued his chance for a White House visit. He is unlikely to get another until he cleans up his democratic act.

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