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Senior Turkmen Visit Highlights U.S. Dilemma

  • Andrew Tully

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov in Washington on June 24.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov in Washington on June 24.

Officials in Ashgabat have been looking to the West for buyers ever since Russia backed away from an agreement to buy large quantities of natural gas from Turkmenistan.

Earlier this month, Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov was in Brussels to meet with European Union officials to explore a deal, the details of which remain unclear. While the results of those talks remain unclear, one thing is certain: No gas can be sold until the EU-backed Nabucco pipeline, which is due to run from Turkey to Austria, is complete -- and that won't happen until the middle of the next decade.

Working On Washington

This week, Meredov is in Washington although neither the Turkmen Embassy nor the U.S. State Department is discussing his agenda.

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has said it will always stand up for human rights, over which the Turkmen government is much maligned.

Turkmenistan is, for all practical purposes, a closed country, and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov rules it with an authoritative hand. Political opponents have been imprisoned, and the only media allowed are those who support the government.

But Obama has also noted the importance of being pragmatic at a time when his country is struggling in a deep recession and has limited sources of energy.

All the more reason, some might argue, for Berdymukhammedov's administration to be courting the United States.

Maria Lisitsina of advocacy group Human Rights Watch notes to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that "the issue of the release of political prisoners [in Turkmen prisons] remains unresolved."

"The Turkmen government has not even begun talking about this issue," Lisitsina says. "To date, certain people remain blacklisted -- who are not allowed to travel out of the country -- and the list is growing. Independent [nongovernmental organizations] cannot function; journalists who work for various international outfits are forced to work in secret and are under surveillance."

Broader Agenda

As much as the United States needs new sources of energy, Lisitsina says, the Obama administration should stand by its commitment to human rights in its dealings with Meredov or others who might negotiate on behalf of Berdymukhammedov.

"We feel the U.S. government should clearly tell Turkmenistan that it will cooperate with Turkmenistan only if the Turkmen government undertakes the minimal steps required to improve [human rights]," Lisitsina says.

But that approach may not be beneficial to either the United States or Turkmenistan, according to Peter Sinnott, a former lecturer at Columbia University in New York and expert in Central Asian and Caspian affairs.

Sinnott says it's important to understand that real engagement between the United States and Turkmenistan means not merely state-to-state contacts, but "broad interaction with a society."

Therefore, Sinnott says, one way for the United States to have broad engagement with Turkmenistan is to help Berdymukhammedov with an important goal, and that's to improve education in Turkmenistan -- an issue that was neglected by Berdymukhammedov’s predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

"I think the first question is whether Turkmenistan wants to be part of a broader world, and I think the emphasis has to be on what this actually does for a society, rather than something that's demanded from a state," Sinnott says. "Aspects such as education during the period of Turkmenbashi deteriorated terribly. This is an aspect, I think, President Berdymukhammedov is interested in rebuilding, and it's going to take time, and it's going to take a lot of willpower as well as investment."

Sinnot says another point of engagement with Turkmenistan could be agricultural development. He notes that the country is almost entirely rural, and that its farming infrastructure is terribly weak.

The Challenge

Sinnott acknowledges that governments that need energy have been inclined to overlook suppliers' shortcomings in the past, including poor human rights records. He says this is especially true when energy is the only aspect of the two nations' relationship.

Still, Sinnott says that if U.S. officials put human and political rights at the top of the agenda in talks with any Turkmen officials, as Lisitsina recommends, the Central Asians will back out of the meetings.

So first, Sinnott says, Washington has to make Turkmen officials understand how "political and human rights go along with an economy that works." But he says that won't be easy.

"It's very hard for a country whose leadership basically grew up in the Soviet mindset and has not been elected, really, democratically, to understand many of these forces, because they haven't traveled widely in the world," Sinnott says. "So if this is an opportunity to listen to them and to have them perhaps listen and interact with us. They've come for energy, and hopefully they'll stay for more."

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report