Brussels, October 6, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The widely condemned death of RFE/RL journalist Ogulsapar Muradova at the hands of Turkmenistan's security apparatus last month has become a key issue in EU discussions on renewing trade links with the country.
The European Parliament this week made it known that it will not ratify a new trade accord, which was negotiated by the EU's European Commission. The Parliament's international trade committee adopted a draft resolution on October 4 sharply critical of Turkmenistan, saying that President Saparmurat Niyazov's regime severely violates "civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights."
Dutch deputy Jan Albert Maat, who leads EU efforts at parliamentary cooperation with Turkmenistan, said on October 6 that the Turkmen authorities must also explain the death of Muradova before the new trade accord can be ratified.
Maat said in a phone interview with RFE/RL that without an explanation, upgrading trade links would be "impossible."
"I am very upset that Mrs. Muradova has died and as far as we know it [was] not a natural death," Maat said. "The first thing we need is a clear explanation from the minister of foreign affairs [of] Turkmenistan. As long as there is no communication on this and no real discussion and no facts, in my view it should be impossible to [approve] a new agreement with Turkmenistan."
Turkmenistan is the only country in the region which does not have a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, as a result of its consistent rejection of democratic reforms.
Existing trade is regulated by a Soviet-era agreement dating back to 1989. Last year, the EU was the largest source of Turkmen imports, totaling 451 million euros, and was in third place in terms of imports -- after Ukraine and Iran -- with 367 million euros.
EU Also Needs Turkmen Gas
The EU's growing concern with energy security is also forcing officials in Brussels to acknowledge Turkmenistan's huge potential as a supplier of natural gas.
The European Commission, which recently negotiated an Interim Trade Agreement with Ashgabat, wants the European Parliament to approve it. Commission officials argue that the new agreement is superior to the 1989 rules -- which will remain in place regardless -- as it contains a number of potentially useful human rights provisions.
However, the EU very rarely evokes human rights provisions in its treaties with outside countries.
In his interview, Maat offered a scathing retort to the commission's position, accusing it of a lack of political courage. And he went on to point out that Turkmenistan should not be rewarded with a new trade accord as long as its human rights record remains "very bad."
"My first question on this is that the commission asked the opinion of the Parliament on this point, so -- why did they ask it?" he said. "And second, if it is true that you can only agree on new agreements if there is a real good basis of human rights, [and] well the current situation in Turkmenistan is very bad on human rights and Parliament suggests just to improve the situation before we can make a new agreement with Turkmenistan."
Maat also reiterated the European Parliament's main preconditions for ratifying the trade accord: free access to prisoners for the Red Cross, a "real dialogue" with the Turkmen authorities on the human rights situation, respect for religious freedom -- all of which he said are all the more salient after the death of RFE/RL journalist Muradova.
The European Parliament is likely to hold its definitive vote on the EU-Turkmen trade accord later this month.
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