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Advantage United States In This Year's Meeting With Turkmen Officials

  • Bruce Pannier

Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov is in a position Turkmen officials have not been in before: he has to ask for help.

Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov is in a position Turkmen officials have not been in before: he has to ask for help.

Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov is leading a delegation to Washington for talks on October 15, but this year's annual consultations between officials from the United States and Turkmenistan are of a different character.

Unlike at previous such meetings, this time Turkmenistan is desperately in need of assistance.

As Meredov arrives in the U.S. capital, back home in Turkmenistan economic and security problems are mounting. Natural gas, the main and some might argue only pillar of Turkmenistan's economy, has fallen in price to roughly half its value of less than two years ago. Turkmen authorities have as a result reduced, or cut entirely, social benefits the country's people had enjoyed since the country became independent in late 1991. There are even reports that wage arrears are piling up.

This has never happened before.

Additionally, Turkmenistan is facing an increasing security problem along its border with Afghanistan. A map the United Nations recently released showing areas where the fundamentalist Taliban was gaining influence indicated that nearly the entire Turkmen-Afghan border area is now a hot spot. Six members of Turkmenistan's armed forces were killed last year by militants who crossed into Turkmen territory from Afghanistan.

This has never happened before either.

Turkmenistan reached out to Washington earlier this year requesting military assistance, and that too has never happened before.

In the search for support to alleviate economic and security problems, Turkmenistan has few options. Ashgabat's "positive neutrality" policy has resulted in its almost complete isolation, something Turkmen authorities seem to have intended without considering that problems like the current ones might someday arise.

Turkmenistan has bad relations with former colonial master Russia, and Ashgabat is already overly dependent on China economically.

So Meredov walks into the meeting in Washington with not much to offer and a lot to ask for, which could (and some would say should) prompt U.S. officials at the meeting to demand a quid pro quo.

For example, Reporters Without Borders on October 14 released an open letter to Turkmenistan's Meredov and Turkmenistan's ambassador to the United States, Meret Orazov, urging them "to release imprisoned reporter Saparmamed Nepeskuliev." The letter was signed by senior representatives of several other organizations, including RFE/RL.

Nepeskuliev is a freelance journalist for RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, and also for the Alternative Turkmenistan News, run by Ruslan Myatiev. He disappeared in early July near the Turkmen Caspian coast city of Turkmenbashi while carrying out research for articles. His family learned at the end of July that Nepeskuliev had been detained on charges of "possessing pills with narcotic substances."

Turkmen authorities have commented on neither Nepeskuliev's detention nor information that he has already been convicted and sentenced to three years in jail.

Nepeskuliev is only one of many cases in Turkmenistan that human rights and media-freedom organizations have been raising, in some instances for more than a decade.

As long as Turkmenistan's economy was moving along based on gas exports and the country's borders were secure, Ashgabat could ignore outside complaints.

But those days are gone, at least for now, and Washington is in a position to press Turkmen officials to make reforms.

The Washington Post and The Diplomat have also posted articles about the U.S.-Turkmen meeting ahead of the event.

Qishloq will return to this subject after details about the October 15 meeting emerge.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service director Muhammad Tahir contributed to this report

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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