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Turkmenistan: Rights Activists Call For More U.S. Pressure

The imprisonment last week of one of Turkmenistan's few opposition figures has raised calls from human rights activists for more pressure on the Turkmen government. RFE/RL's Beatrice Hogan talks to Central Asian observers who say the U.S. policy of engaging the government of President Saparmurat Niyazov has not worked, and that the regime has only grown more repressive.

New York, 1 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Last Friday, the co-chairman of the outlawed Turkmen opposition party Agzybirlik received a five-year sentence on apparently trumped-up charges of hooliganism with intent to commit murder. Nurberdy Nurmammedov's conviction follows a long series of human rights abuses in Turkmenistan that date to the early 1990s.

The United States says it condemns Turkmenistan's human rights record, but some human rights experts say the U.S. protest has been limited to words. The State Department issued a statement expressing concern for Nurmammedov on February 16 -- almost seven weeks after his arrest.

But given the cumulative record of Niyazov's repression, says Erika Dailey, a Central Asian expert in New York, the United States should be more strenuous in showing its disapproval. Dailey, who serves as a consultant for the Open Society Institute in New York, says Washington has been sending the wrong signals by encouraging investment in Turkmenistan. "The U.S. government has consistently courted Turkmenistan, has been trying desperately to try to increase investment by U.S. investors into Turkmenistan, and has gone to fairly extensive lengths to encourage them to do so. So there's been absolutely no price to pay -- no tangible price to pay -- for these appalling practices, one of the worst human rights records in the world, and certainly in that region."

Though cited repeatedly by U.S. State Department human rights reports for human rights abuses, Turkmenistan also plays an important role in Washington's strategic energy interests in Central Asia. Turkmenistan is considered a key buffer state between the region's two main powers -- Russia and Iran. Because of its location -- on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea -- Turkmenistan's cooperation is critical for the development of Caspian energy.

The Western-backed trans-Caspian gas pipeline aims to route Turkmen oil and gas under the Caspian, through Azerbaijan and Georgia and on to world markets through a Turkish port -- bypassing Russia entirely and thus promoting Turkmenistan's independence.

But Turkmenistan has proved impervious to Western wishes. Not only has it consistently violated human rights, but it has also undercut the pipeline project by making deals with Iran and Russia. Turkmenistan's authoritarian regime -- considered one of the most repressive in the world -- poses a vexing problem for U.S. policymakers: how to deal with dictators while furthering U.S. interests.

Until now, the administration's answer has been a policy of constructive engagement, which is based on the notion that cooperating with and investing in repressive countries will eventually promote civil society.

Wayne Merry is an analyst at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based foreign policy institute, and he formerly worked at the U.S. State Department, focusing on issues related to the former Soviet Union. He says the U.S. policy of constructive engagement is short-sighted. "What we are frequently told is that we have to engage these people, we have to receive them in Washington, we have to give them all kinds of stature in order so that we can then persuade them to prove their democratization, human rights, civil liberties record. In Turkmenistan, I think it's quite clear that exactly the opposite has happened. The more legitimacy we have accorded to the Niyazov regime, the worse the record has become."

In 1998, President Clinton received Niyazov at the White House and posed for a photo opportunity with the Central Asian leader. The visit and exposure lent a great deal of legitimacy to Niyazov's position. But he has seemed to flout U.S. human rights concerns by imprisoning dissidents whenever American delegations are in the country. He imprisoned several Baptist ministers last fall, and placed Nurmammedov's son under house arrest in December while U.S. officials were visiting.

That Nurmammedov was well-known to officials in the United States gave him no special immunity. In 1992, he met with then Secretary of State James Baker and frequently informed visiting diplomats and dignitaries about human rights abuses.

Michael Ochs a human rights investigator from the Helsinki Commission, says Nurmammedov's arrest -- which occurred days after his visit with U.S. officials at Ambassador Steve Mann's residence -- was quite typical of Niyazov. "Niyazov has once again demonstrated his complete indifference to the opinion of the international community, his willingness to do more or less anything to stifle any attempts at freedom of expression, and even the slightest criticism of any of his policies or of himself."

The imprisonment of Nurmammedov effectively silences one of the last independent voices in Turkmenistan. Other outspoken dissidents are already dead, in jail or in exile. Even as Niyazov's track record of repression became clear, Dailey says that Nurmammedov was often held up as an example of civil society in Turkmenistan -- a crucial element to justifying the United States' continuing relations with and foreign assistance to the country.

The U.S. policy toward Turkmenistan is based on the principle that "aid follows reform." Because of Turkmenistan's record, the country is currently being decertified for military assistance under the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) treaty. No Ex-Im loans have been approved in the last six months -- and no new loans are likely to be considered until change is apparent. Any money that does flow into Turkmenistan, moreover, will be targeted directly to grassroots programs so that it does not fall into government hands.

But change may be on the horizon. The Helsinki Commission -- which serves as the U.S. Congress' human rights investigative committee under the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) -- is planning to hold a hearing on Turkmenistan on March 21. The meeting will not only explore the human rights situation in the country, but will also examine various approaches of U.S. policy toward Turkmenistan.