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Qishloq Ovozi

U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Daniel Baer (file photo)

Turkmenistan is a troublesome partner. The country needs outside help to develop its vast energy resources but shuns a foreign presence on its soil or any foreign advice about how the county should be run.

International human rights groups and media freedom organizations perennially list Turkmenistan as having one of most abusive regimes in the world.

That should make Turkmenistan an unlikely party to be a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), but it is a member, though the country's participation is difficult to see sometimes.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, or Azatlyk as it is known locally, recently interviewed the U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Daniel Baer on the sidelines of the Forum 2000 conference in Prague to ask about both U.S. and OSCE relations with Turkmenistan.

Azatlyk noted Turkmenistan was included on the U.S. State Department's list of countries of particular concern during the most recent report on religious freedom after being left off the list previously.

Asked if this were part of a new U.S. approach toward Turkmenistan, Baer said not really.

"I don't think that constitutes a new approach," the ambassador said. "I think that there have been consistent concerns with the observance of the government of Turkmenistan of its international obligations with respect to human rights and those are concerns that we have raised both publicly and privately for many years now."

Turkmenistan's poor human rights record came up at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, "Europe's largest annual human rights and democracy conference," in September. The OSCE organizes the event each year.

Baer confirmed that Turkmenistan was a topic during the meeting. But he said only delegates of other countries discussed the issue.

"Unfortunately, Turkmenistan boycotts that meeting -- and it really is unfortunate -- because, if the government of Turkmenistan were there to engage, they might be able to respond to some of the concerns that are raised," Baer said.

Asked about OSCE regulations on the continued absence of a member, Baer said there were no regulations on this point. But he said Turkmenistan has already been the subject of a special OSCE report and the organization was looking into how best to convince the Turkmen government to implement the recommendations from that report.

Afghan Withdrawal

With respect to U.S.-Turkmen relations, Baer said, "United States' officials both in Ashgabat and in Washington and various other places around the world where we meet with Turkmen officials, raise a range of concerns."

Baer said he personally has "raised concerns about political prisoners. I won't go into the 'he said, she said' back-and-forth of a particular conversation, but let's just say that we have a genuine and a lengthy engagement on a range of topics, including human rights."

Azatlyk asked Ambassador Baer about the upcoming drawdown of foreign forces in Afghanistan and what measures the OSCE and Washington are taking to help safeguard Central Asia from threats emanating from Afghanistan.

The issue is particularly important to Turkmenistan where six soldiers and border guards were killed along the Afghan border in two separate incidents earlier this year.

According to Baer, "specific, concrete work with the OSCE would be the engagement through the border management staff college and other specific projects of the OSCE office in Turkmenistan."

As regards Washington, "there's been a long-standing cooperative engagement between our two governments on issues of security and that conversation is ongoing."

Russian Influence

Asked about the potential for Russian influence to grow in the Central Asian region as a void is created by the foreign forces departing Afghanistan, Baer said, "Russia has had a long relationship with the countries of Central Asia and there's no reason to be concerned about a relationship per se, there are trade relations, there are family relations, there are obviously a lot of migrant workers that have come mainly from the Central Asian states."

But Baer said there is concern about Russia's influence rolling back democratic progress in Central Asia.

Baer, perhaps from a sense of diplomacy, did not mention Turkmenistan in this regard.

The ambassador's omission might be a reflection of the fact there has not been any significant "democratic progress" in Turkmenistan since the country became independent in late 1991.

The ambassador instead commented on the one country in Central Asia that has some potential to move toward a more democratic system, Kyrgyzstan, seemed to be imitating some of Russia's recent controversial legislation.

"We see in a place like Kyrgyzstan the passage…through parliament of a law that looks pretty much exactly like the so-called gay propaganda in law in Russia," Baer said. "That's a roll back of democratic freedoms in Kyrgyzstan and Kyrgyzstan can do better."

-- Bruce Pannier, based on an interview conducted by Muhammad Tahir, the director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

Author Peter Hopkirk wrote of his love for the characters, the settings, the adventure that were part of the contest between the British, Russians, and others that was played out in Inner Asia during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

I write this belatedly because I was unaware until recently that a giant in my field had passed away.

My thanks to Edward Lemon for bringing the sad news of the passing of Peter Hopkirk to my attention. Hopkirk died on August 22 at age 83.

For me, and so many others who are now in the field of Central Asian studies, Hopkirk helped bring alive the rich history of the region during the last 200 years.

I have every one of Hopkirk’s books and I’ve read each of them several times. The first of his books I read, nearly 30 years ago, was “Setting the East Ablaze,” about the turbulent early days of Bolshevik rule in Central Asia, the Red Army and the White Army in western China, Moscow’s hopes to ignite the flame of communism in India, and Britain’s efforts to thwart the Kremlin’s designs.

It was not long before I read “Foreign Devils on the Silk Road,” about the search for ancient cities and civilizations in what is now China’s Xinjiang Province; “Trespassers on the Roof of the World,” about the 19th-century quest to reach the mysterious and fabled city of Lhasa; “On Secret Service East of Constantinople,” about the great powers, their agents, and spies vying for influence in Turkey, Persia, and Afghanistan during World War I; and, of course, Hopkirk’s masterpiece, “The Great Game.”

I had read them all when years later I came across yet another of his books, “Quest For Kim,” Hopkirk’s last book, in which he attempts to trace who the real-life people were who inspired the characters in "Kim," Kipling’s classic tale, a book that captured Hopkirk’s imagination when he read it in his childhood.

I pulled “Quest For Kim” off my shelf before I started writing this and was happy to see that on the first page I had written the place and date I started reading it (an old habit of mine): “Kabul 1/19/02.” How thoroughly appropriate.

Hopkirk had a surprise inside that I appreciated more than I can say.

In his prologue, “Here begins the Great Game…” he writes of his love for the characters, the settings, the adventure that were part of the contest between the British, Russians, and others that was played out in Inner Asia during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A pair of photos provided by the Hopkirk family showing Peter Hopkirk as a young man and in his later years
A pair of photos provided by the Hopkirk family showing Peter Hopkirk as a young man and in his later years

Hopkirk lamented, “Any remaining dreams I might have had of entering the shadowy, real-life world of Kim evaporated in 1947 when, after 300 years, the British packed their bags and left India forever.”

Hopkirk found himself in Somalia “serving in the King’s African Rifles. I could hardly have been further away from Great Game country -- from the North-West Frontier of India, the Pamirs, Afghanistan and Persia, and from Russian and Chinese Central Asia, whose caravan cities and great empty deserts I so yearned to see.

“However, just as I was about to dismiss the Great Game finally from my life, I stumbled upon another book, newly published, which once more sent the adrenalin racing through me. This was Fitzroy Maclean’s 'Eastern Approaches'…”

I read “Eastern Approaches” before I read any of Hopkirk’s books and share Hopkirk’s appraisal of the book as “heady stuff.”

“Kim” helped draw Hopkirk to “Eastern Approaches,” and “Eastern Approaches” helped draw me to Hopkirk’s books.

Thank you, Peter Hopkirk, for introducing me to Colonel Frederick Bailey, “an absolutely first-class man,” whose adventures included being hired, while in disguise, by the Cheka, the predecessor of the KGB, to track down a British spy in Central Asia who was…Colonel Bailey.

Thank you, Peter Hopkirk, for taking me on the trails of explorers Aurel Stein, Sven Hedin, and others into the Taklamakan Desert in Chinese Turkestan as they searched for ancient cities buried under the sands for more than a millennium.

Thank you for bringing me to the Tibetan Plateau to watch pundit Nain Singh, Russian Colonel Nikolai Przhevalsky, and others race to be the first to reach Lhasa and for recounting the story of the unfortunate explorers Susie Rijnhart and her husband, Petrus.

“Buried in a medicine chest somewhere beneath the Chang Tang, Tibet’s desolate northern plateau, lie the remains of Charlie,” the Rijnharts' son, not even 14 months old.

Before her ordeal was over, she would lose her husband, too, who went around a river bend to speak with the first people the Rijnharts had seen in days, likely bandits, and vanished.

And I express my gratitude to Peter Hopkirk for acquainting me with the tales of Alexander Burns, killed in Kabul in 1841; Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly (who coined the term “Great Game”), executed by the emir of Bukhara in 1842 after spending time in the infamous “bug pit”; and all the stories of abbots, ambans, lamas, steppe warriors, European military adventurers, explorers, missionaries, warlords, butchers, emirs, and khans who make the history of the region so rich and fascinating.

No one tells these tales better than Peter Hopkirk.

His contribution to Central Asian studies cannot be measured.

-- Bruce Pannier

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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.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws 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.