Some observers of Central Asia say the United States is not expressing harshly enough its disapproval of repression in Turkmenistan. During a visit to the region last week, U.S. diplomat Bennett Freeman said the U.S. is well aware that Turkmenistan has by far the worst human-rights record of post-Soviet Central Asia. RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier reports:
Prague, 1 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Since it became independent nine years ago, the Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan has drawn more attention for its abuse of human rights and the cult of personality surrounding its leader than for anything else. With the country's newly elected parliament two months ago having removed any limit on President Saparmurat Niyazov's tenure in office, this is now perhaps truer than ever before.
The parliament's action was not welcomed by those who have been waiting for the Turkmen leader to show some signs of easing controls over his country. But, if anything, Niyazov in recent weeks has resorted to an even heavier hand in dealing with his opponents.
Barely a week after Niyazov got his mandate for a life-long presidency, one of the few remaining opposition leaders in the country -- Nurberdy Nurmammedov -- was jailed. A month later, an important Turkmen Islamic figure -- Ahmed Orazgylych -- was similarly imprisoned. Niyazov dismissed the cleric as largely ignorant of religion despite the man's formal training at a reputable theology center in the ancient city of Samarkand.
More recently, Niyazov has courted business ties with Russia's giant natural-gas monopoly Gazprom at the expense of relations with foreign companies seeking to build a trans-Caspian pipeline to bring Turkmen natural gas to the West. Foremost among those companies were U.S. firms.
Bennett Freeman is the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor. On a tour of four Central Asian nations last month, Freeman made a brief visit to Turkmenistan. This week, he spoke with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service about his trip and U.S. views of Turkmenistan:
"I was struck by the fact that there really is nothing that we would consider to be civil society, that is individuals and groups who are free to express their opinions and who are able to articulate political views that might be at variance with the government. There really are not people like that, who are able to operate publicly in Turkmenistan."
Freeman said Turkmenistan's lack of civil society stands in contrast to other former Soviet countries in the region.
"I found that despite all the challenges to democracy in Kyrgyzstan, in Kazakhstan, in Uzbekistan -- and for all of the particular problems with recent elections in those other three Central Asian countries -- that at least in those countries I was able to meet with leaders of non-governmental organizations, political activists, and human rights defenders. And I was unable to meet with such individuals and groups in Turkmenistan because they really are not permitted to exist. I found that to be a very revealing and disturbing feature of the scene in Turkmenistan."
Turning to U.S. policy toward Turkmenistan, Freeman acknowledged Washington's interest in increasing energy business with the country. But, he said, the U.S. is not overlooking the situation of Turkmenistan's citizens:
"We have a great respect for the people of Turkmenistan and we hope very much that they can have a democratic future and enjoy greater human rights and religious freedom as a part of that future. But at the same time, we do feel strongly that the government of Turkmenistan has both the responsibility and an immediate opportunity to take specific, concrete steps which can strengthen respect for human rights and religious freedom for the people of Turkmenistan."
Among the steps Freeman recommended were releasing political prisoners, providing compensation to religious communities whose facilities were destroyed by the Turkmen government, and allowing international organizations to have access to Turkmen prisons. Freeman noted that today not even the International Red Cross can visit Turkmen jails.
Freeman then addressed himself to the acute circumstances in which most Turkmen people live, with an average income of up to $20 a month. Water, electricity, medicine, and even basic food supplies such as flour are often rationed and in the best times irregular. Freeman said development of the country's natural resource wealth should proceed in a way that would benefit the people as well as the government.
"We hope very much that Turkmenistan's gas and oil reserves are developed, and we think that it's important they are developed and any prosperity is widely shared in Turkmenistan. We believe that there are important needs that must be addressed, and we hope very much that equitable ways can be found to share the revenue. That is a set of issues which also could benefit from a greater openness in society and a more open political system. If more voices were heard in charting the future for Turkmenistan, we could have greater confidence that decisions could then be made that would create a more balanced and prosperous economic future for the people of Turkmenistan."
Freeman was only in Turkmenistan for some 36 hours. He was there at the end of a tour of the region which took him as well to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. To varying degrees, those countries also have poor human rights records. But Freeman emphasized that none of them was worse than that of Turkmenistan.
(Naz Nazar and Mariya Rasner of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)