PRAGUE, April 28, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Backers argue that the proposal simply takes up where a Soviet-era agreement left off -- acknowledging Turkmenistan's independence. They also argue that a policy of "engagement" with the West could help promote Turkmen reforms, pointing to a mechanism they claim would allow them to bring up human-rights issues with authorities in Ashgabat.
'Undermining' EU Position?
But the Brussels-based International Crisis Group delicately discouraged the deal in a recent report. The group said there is "some basis for concern that efforts to engage even the [Central Asian] region's worst offenders -- Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan -- may be undermining the EU's stand on human rights and democratization."
There are also some within the European Parliament who cannot accept that the EU is negotiating a trade deal with the administration of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. One such critic is Cem Ozdemir, a German Green who has been trying to block the agreement.
"Turkmenistan is not [just] any country -- Turkmenistan is a country where, unfortunately, a dictator has hijacked the country and is leading one of the worst regimes in the world," Ozdemir says. "It's very ironic that the European Parliament -- with its huge majority of the left parties -- the social-democrats and the conservatives together are more and more willing to overlook the tragedy that going on in Turkmenistan."
Europeans have not shied away from commercial deals in the country. French builder Bouygues is one of many EU companies already doing business in Turkmenistan. Bouygues has been building many of the grand structures that President Niyazov has poured public money into, including a new ice-skating rink for his arid country.
More Than Just Rights
But Erika Dailey, of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan project, says the EU deal with Turkmenistan is not in keeping with EU policies.
"The trade deal offers privileges which would be completely inconsistent with the European Union's previous position condemning the human rights situation in Turkmenistan," Dailey says.
Beyond rights abuses in Turkmenistan, Dailey points out that there are fundamental reasons the deal offends EU standards.
"There's a second component to the trade agreement that requires that the 'principles for market economy' be in place in Turkmenistan prior to signing the deal," she says. "Turkmenistan doesn't even have a convertible currency. There's virtually no private sector; any private initiatives are quickly cut off; and the president controls a command economy."
Rush For Energy
European Parliamentarian Ozdemir says the EU appears willing to overlook those shortcomings to help solve another problem.
Ozdemir laments that the proposed deal stands in stark contrast to EU criticism of other countries.
"This would be a shame for the European Parliament, given the fact that on one side we're criticizing Belarus for human rights abuses and, on the other side, the majority in the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament was willing to compromise on human rights in Turkmenistan," he adds.
Dailey warns that if the deal goes through, it could damage the EU's credibility.
"If the EU approves this deal without any of the required preconditions, then they would in fact be rewarding a massively abusive dictatorship," Dailey says.
Ozdemir argues that, not only should the EU scrap the deal, it should also apply more pressure to encourage democratic reforms in Turkmenistan.
"We should take a very tough and clear position toward the leadership in Turkmenistan and take the side of the people in Turkmenistan," Ozdemir says. "And we should support those in Turkmenistan who want to become a full democracy -- for those who want Turkmenistan to become part of the civilized world and [we should] not make any compromises with the Turkmen leadership."
The European Parliament's Foreign and Trade committees have approved the deal. Now it faces debate in the full parliament. Passage there would send it on to the EU Council of Ministers, which could still reject it.
(Mohammad Tahir of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)