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Turkmenistan: Turkmens Get Rare Look At Relations With U.S. -- From Both Sides

Turkmen state television almost never broadcasts Western press interviews with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. But this week it made an exception by presenting segments of an interview the president previously gave to a U.S. television network. About the same time, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service aired a radio interview with the new U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan. The two interviews offered Turkmens a rare opportunity to see how differently the Turkmen and U.S. governments view some key issues in Turkmenistan, including human rights.

Prague, 28 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Two separate interviews that Turkmens were able to hear during the last 10 days provided some interesting insights into the way the United States and Turkmenistan view each other and view events in Turkmenistan.

One was an interview a U.S. television network did with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov several months ago, but which aired on Turkmen state television this week. The other, was an interview by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service late last week with the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan, Tracey Ann Jacobson.

In his interview with the U.S. network, Niyazov denied human rights are violated in Turkmenistan. As proof that no one in the country has grievances with officials over such issues, he said he himself can travel anywhere with no need of armed guards to protect him. "Here, you see, not a person has had their human rights violated. If you want, go to the bazaar, in any city. I am ready. We do not have security guards. The leaders [of the country] do not have bodyguards," Niyazov said.

But the short shrift the president gave to the human rights issue contrasted dramatically with the importance U.S. Ambassador Jacobson gave the subject in her remarks. She repeatedly referred to Ashgabat's need to make improve its human rights record.

"At the [U.S.] Embassy, we have three principle goals in Turkmenistan -- that's to promote the development of democracy and human rights, to promote economic cooperation, and to promote security cooperation. All of these goals are important to us. When we talk about economic development, we're talking about two things principally -- the development of trade and trade opportunities between our two countries because trade not only can promote prosperity, but also promotes mutual understanding. However, our goal of democracy and human rights is our most important goal. And for this reason, this is the goal that we focus on the most. We have to work on all three of these goals together, but certainly, in order to make progress on our goals of economic cooperation and security cooperation, we also need to make progress on promoting democracy and human rights," Jacobson said.

Jacobson also said she talks about human rights and democracy every time she meets with a member of the Turkmen government. One of the issues undoubtedly mentioned in these talks is use of the court system to imprison political opponents, a fact Niyazov contends is untrue, but rights organizations and exiled Turkmen opposition figures say is common practice.

Niyazov has said on several occasions that there are not now, nor ever have been, people imprisoned in Turkmenistan for political reasons. In fact, Niyazov mentioned in his interview that he views Turkmenistan as something of a land of liberation. "In the last 10 years, in Turkmenistan, if we have freed 120,000 prisoners, then how are we putting people in prison? 'They' say we are throwing people in jail, but it is the opposite, we are freeing them," he said. Niyazov said the prisons only house murderers and terrorists who deserve to remain behind bars.

The president did not comment on the recent decision in Turkmenistan to reintroduce the exit visa, abolished just a few years back, without which no citizen can leave the country. That was reintroduced a few months after an alleged assassination attempt on Niyazov on 25 November 2002. He compared the visa reintroduction to stepped up security measures taken in the U.S. after the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001.

But Jacobson's remarks showed that Washington hardly views the visa question the same way. She said the reintroduction of the exit visa was a matter of great concern for the U.S. -- which views freedom of movement as a basic human right. She also said it is an issue that can not be overlooked in U.S.-Turkmen relations.

"My government believes that freedom of movement is a basic human right. And we do not believe that Turkmenistan is permitting this basic human right at the current time. It doesn't matter whether you call it an exit visa, an exit permit, an external passport, if citizens of Turkmenistan are prevented form leaving the country based on political or social reasons, that's a violation of the principles of freedom of movement. Our Jackson-Vanik legislation, passed in 1974, says that we must impose sanctions on countries that do not permit freedom of movement. For that reason, we're in a discussion now, both in the United States and here in Turkmenistan, about freedom of movement," Jacobson said.

But while the two separate interviews showed some dramatic differences in official points of view, there were some areas of agreement, too. Both the Turkmen president and the U.S. ambassador said that a good relationship between their two countries is important. Jacobson noted that Turkmenistan was extremely helpful in providing corridors for humanitarian aid into Afghanistan, and Niyazov remembered the support the U.S. gave in Turkmenistan's successful quest to obtain UN status as a "neutral nation."

The two countries also have potentially strong mutual economic interests in developing Turkmenistan's energy sector and exporting its oil and natural gas. The U.S. government is encouraging Turkmenistan to export via a planned pipeline across the Caucasus to Turkey.

But clearly the two sides do not interpret events in Turkmenistan the same way. Niyazov said during his interview that Western democracy was not for Turkmenistan -- a sign that relations between the U.S. and Turkmenistan are very likely to endure some future uncomfortable moments.

(Rozinar Khudaiberdiev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report)