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Turkmenistan: U.S. Commission Reviews Rights

The U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe Tuesday branded Turkmenistan as one of the "worst-case scenarios" of post-Soviet development in a hearing on democratization and human rights in Turkmenistan. RFE/RL's Lisa McAdams attended the hearing on Capitol Hill and filed this report:

Washington, 22 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Commission members and those who testified before it painted a bleak picture of life in Turkmenistan, where they say all political and civil rights are ignored or abused and where freedom of religion is routinely violated.

Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), who chaired the commission's hearing, said that much in Turkmenistan today recalls the rule of the late Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. "And we all know how he ended up," Smith said, in reference to the late dictator's demise and subsequent execution.

Smith opened the hearing by laying out the case that under what he called the "misrule" of President Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan has become the most restrictive nation of those that once made up the former Soviet Union.

Smith took particular issue with a December 28 ruling, which gave Niyazov the right to remain in office permanently. He said the ruling flagrantly flouts OSCE commitments, which call for regular and competitive elections. Smith also said that unchallenged, it could cause other Central Asian leaders to follow suit.

Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) was next to take the floor. After a few introductory remarks, Brownback issued a special appeal:

"My plea Mr. Chairman is to the Turkmen government, to Turkmenistan, change, embrace tolerance, embrace human rights. It's going to happen one way or the other. It will be much better were it to happen that they would move forward to enjoy a clear standing as a nation of free standing that also recognizes the human rights of its people."

Brownback was followed by Representative Joseph Pitts (R-PA), who delivered perhaps the harshest condemnation during the commission hearing of not only current policy in Turkmenistan, but also U.S. policy toward Niyazov's government. Pitts said he found the "litany" of abuses in Turkmenistan "disturbing." But he said he was equally troubled by perceived inaction on the part of the U.S. government:

"Any time a U.S. government official sits down with a Turkmen government official, human rights concerns must be at or near the top of the talking points. We cannot separate our discussion on other issues from the ongoing violation of human rights. I would like to see this message much more strongly conveyed by all levels and all branches of the U.S. government."

To answer that charge the Commission next heard from John Byerle, who serves as special adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for the New Independent States (NIS). Byerle acknowledged that U.S. efforts in Turkmenistan were having "limited" affect to date, but he said that did not mean in his view the effort should be abandoned:

"The reaction of President Niyazov when we raise human rights is, I think it's fair to say, bristly. He is tired of hearing it from us and obviously he doesn't have much to say in response to us. I mentioned that occasionally we see some loosening (in repressions) and we hold our hope that the message we are delivering to him will get through. But I can't say that we see through his actions that our representations have tremendous effect."

Still, Byerle said it was the U.S. view that it was better to try to exert influence from inside Turkmenistan, rather than to attempt democratic change from afar.

He also cited strategic U.S. interests in Turkmenistan as a reason to remain engaged. Here again he fielded strong criticism from commission members, who suggested the U.S. was overlooking human rights concerns to pursue commercial interests namely in the form of the Trans-Caspian pipeline.

Byerle rejected the charge, saying that U.S. policy on the Trans-Caspian Gas pipeline is really a regional policy. "Turkmenistan is one of the players," he said, "but it is not the only actor." He suggested that Azerbaijan and Turkey could also play a role.

Next to take the floor was Piotr Iwaszkiewicz, who just completed an assignment as the Human Rights officer in the OSCE Office in Ashgabat last week. Due to the lateness of the hour, Iwaszkiewicz shortened his remarks to focus primarily on what he said was Turkmen President Niyazov's "own national way to democracy." He said it was Niyazov's view that there was no need for instruction or assistance from outside the country:

"During the current transition period, the population of Turkmenistan is considered by Niyazov to be "not ready" for a western type of democracy. In the president's view, the way to avoid social tensions, conflicts and bloodshed is to forbid such institutions as a free press and political opposition."

Opposition leader Avdy Kuliev, who heads the Turkmenistan Foundation, addressed that issue. In his statement, read aloud by his translator -- again due to the time -- Kuliev said repression in Turkmenistan is becoming more severe every day and he described the country as being like one big prison for its citizens. He said people live in complete isolation from the rest of the world and in fear, without feeling free or secure. Kuliev also had harsh words for the U.S. administration, charging it with a lack of concern about violations of human rights and basic rule of law. And he too said geopolitical oil and gas interests have overridden democracy.

There was no testimony from Turkmen government officials, but not for lack of trying, according to Commission Chairman Smith. He said the commission had invited Ambassador Ugur to participate, as well as informing the President and Foreign Minister about the hearings. But Smith said no official reactions or statements were forthcoming from Turkmen authorities.