Turkmen President Urged To Continue Moving Forward On Human Rights
September 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Those who expected any pledges of political liberalization in Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's address to the United Nations must have been disappointed. In his first-ever speech at the UN General Assembly session on September 26, the Turkmen president addressed a number of issues, but human rights was not among them.
Earlier this week, however, Berdymukhammedov faced tough questions on human rights from students at New York's Columbia University. He reiterated his promise to amnesty thousands of prisoners in early October. Some 9,000 prisoners are expected to be pardoned on the eve of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan's Laylat ul-Qadr, or Night of Power, which falls on October 10 this year.
Berdymukhammedov said that in the future each official holiday will bring an amnesty, which replaces the once-a-year amnesty that was customary during Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's leadership.
Berdymukhammedov also shed light on the fate of Turkmenistan's most prominent political prisoner, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov. Shikhmuradov was charged with masterminding the alleged assassination attempt on Niyazov in November 2002. The fate of Shikhmuradov and another opponent of Niyazov, Batyr Berdyev, have been unknown since their imprisonment. Many feared they had died in prison.
In response to a student's question, Berdymukhammedov said he is "positive" the two men are alive.
Not Seen His Father Since 2002
That statement brought hope to the two men's families. Bairam Shikhmuradov is Boris Shikhmuradov's son and also a leader of the unregistered Republican Party of Turkmenistan. He told RFE/RL from Moscow that he had not seen his father since late 2002. He and his relatives have tried many times to find information about Boris Shikhmuradov, but all attempts have failed.
Shikhmuradov says Berdymukhammedov became the first Turkmen official to openly answer questions about Shikhmuradov and Berdyev, although he did not actually mention the men by name.
"The last time they were mentioned was by Niyazov some four years ago," Shikhmuradov says. "During Niyazov's meeting in Ashgabat with the diplomatic corps, this issue was raised. And Niyazov said, 'They will be in prison. They will be denied visits for five years. After five years, visits will be allowed.' "
Shikhmuradov says Turkmen authorities had refused to give any information about the men and have pretended that neither the men nor the cases ever existed.
Many Turkmen await the October amnesty with great hope. Some expect the release of Shikhmuradov and Berdyev, among others. But Bairam Shikhmuradov says he is not sure his father will be among those pardoned.
Probe Demanded Into Muradova's Death
The fate of another victim of the Niyazov regime -- RFE/RL Ashgabat correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova -- was also raised ahead of Berdymukhammedov's meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the sidelines of his UN visit. The New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists urged Rice to demand an independent probe into Muradova's death in a Turkmen jail in September 2006.
Muradova's body was returned to her family on September 14, 2006. The circumstances of her death are still unknown. Her relatives say her body displayed signs she had been beaten.
The Rice-Berdymukhammedov talks were mostly about the Turkmen economy and its energy sector, including possible cooperation with U.S. companies. They also reportedly discussed the development of political freedoms and an independent judiciary in Turkmenistan. It is not clear whether the two sides touched upon the fate of Muradova or political prisoners.
A U.S. delegation visited Turkmenistan in late August to discuss human-rights issues with the Ashgabat officials. Catherine Cosman, a senior policy analyst at the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, was part of the delegation. She told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that Turkmen people feel more optimistic and hopeful about recent changes since Berdymukhammedov became president.
However, Cosman says there is a long way to go in terms of the human-rights situation. "The government has undertaken a few symbolic steps -- so far only symbolic ones -- and has indicated a willingness to undertake some structural reforms," she says.
One of the significant steps of the Turkmen government was a release of 11 political prisoners in early August. Among them was the country's former chief mufti, Nasrullah Ibn Ibadullah. Ibadullah, 60, was sentenced to 22 years in prison in 2004 for involvement in the alleged assassination attempt on Niyazov. He was allowed to return to work as an adviser at the state Council for Religious Affairs.
Many welcomed the move, although some skeptics said it was merely an act aimed at sending positive signals to the West before Berdymukhammedov's trip to the UN.
Bairam Shikhmuradov says the release of the political prisoners is a genuine step toward a political liberalization in the country.
"I strongly object to those who have said this step by President Berdymukhammedov was only window-dressing," he says. "Eleven people were in prison for some five years. They were tortured there. God knows what else they experienced. And those people returned home. It is not just window-dressing. It is a real act. It is the first step the new authorities have taken in order to put an end to Turkmenistan's catastrophic human-rights situation."
Shikhmuradov adds that the Turkmen president has so far looked indecisive and needs to take more practical steps to support his declarations about improving the country's human-rights record.
Cosman agrees. She says Berdymukhammedov should authorize the release of all political prisoners. She adds that such a release should be done not on the condition of a pardon, but rather a full rehabilitation.
Turkmenistan: Environmentalists Concerned About Oil, Gas Development
Kate Watters, executive director of the Virginia-based nongovernmental environmental organization Crude Accountability, tells RFE/RL that Western energy companies and governments are eager to seize on Ashgabat's opening up to the world.
"Turkmenistan is the last frontier for hydrocarbon investment in the Caspian region," she says. "The other Caspian countries -- particularly Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan -- have really been the focus of a lot of targeted Western oil and gas investment not only by the major international oil companies but also by the international finance institutions that provide financing to those companies."
Last week alone, at least two Western governmental delegations -- from Britain and Austria -- visited Turkmenistan for talks on cooperation in the oil and gas industry.
'Broaden And Invigorate'
Berdymukhammedov is wrapping up a five-day visit to the United States. He met on September 25 with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and addressed the UN General Assembly in New York on September 26. The U.S. State Department said Rice and Berdymukhammedov discussed energy opportunities, among other topics, while the Turkmen leader told the UN that Ashgabat intends to "broaden" and "invigorate" its cooperation with other states in the areas of energy, culture, transportation, and economy.
Berdymukhammedov was also quoted on September 24 as saying, "Turkmenistan gives primary importance to developing relations with the United States, particularly in oil and gas." A Turkmen delegation also discussed U.S. participation in Turkmenistan's oil and natural-gas development and export with U.S. business leaders.
In a report released September 12, Crude Accountability listed lessons that could be learned from the massive investment made in other areas of the Caspian. Watters says these investments often were made to the detriment of local communities, particularly in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
"If we look at the north Caspian, where the Kashagan, the Karachaganak, or [the] Tengiz [fields were] developed, there's been very serious environmental violations, excess emissions into the atmosphere of toxins," Watters says. "Communities around some of these oil fields are suffering environmental health problems. There are communities where as many as half of the residents are chronically ill from exposure to toxins. And this is where Western corporations are operating."
Birds, Mammals, Fish Endangered
Watters says energy development is also threatening already endangered species of fish such as the Beluga, Stellate, and Russian sturgeon, the kilka (Caspian sprat), as well as the Caspian seal. In Turkmenistan, Watters says energy development is causing particular risk to the Krasovodsk Nature Reserve, home to hundreds of thousands of birds and more than 40 mammal species.
The report calls on companies to avoid undertaking exploration, extraction, and the transport of hydrocarbons in protected areas. It also says the terms of production-sharing agreements between energy companies and host governments in the Caspian region should be made public.
"Currently production-sharing agreements are not open documents," she says. "And we think it should be so that it's clear what sort of investments are being made and also what environmental and social protections need to be put in place to secure the environment and the health of the people living around the investment areas."
Aylkhan Artyqbaev from the Kazakh nongovernmental organization For National Ecology tells RFE/RL that authorities should better control the energy companies' work.
"There is no thorough control on behalf of the state, which leads to extraordinary situations," says Artyqbaev. "I think this is the main reason for the [ecological] problems the region is facing."
Telman Zeynalov is the president of the National Ecological Forecasting Center, an Azerbaijani NGO. He hopes a strong civil society will allow Turkmenistan to avoid the mistakes made in his country.
"There is a huge difference between the former and current president of Turkmenistan," Zeynalov says. "I don't know enough about [the government's] current ecological policy, but it would be good if they create good conditions for the development of civil society in Turkmenistan in order to monitor the ecological situation. In Azerbaijan, we haven't achieved this yet."
According to Crude Accountability, very few NGOs exist in Turkmenistan due to the country's "highly repressive" political system.
(Rovshan Gambarov, from RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, and Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhan contributed to this report.)
Turkmen President Says Press, NGOs Operate Freely
Berdymukhammedov led an interactive presentation where pupils in supposedly regular middle schools in Turkmenistan were shown typing on sleek, late-model computer laptops, girls dressed in traditional costumes were dancing in a sparkling city park, and a provincial bazaar abounded in fruits and vegetables.
They were scenes of a Turkmenistan, where, as the president said, not natural gas, but people, are its "greatest asset.”
Turkmenistan is not known for its respect for its people or for human rights. Hundreds of people are imprisoned in Turkmenistan for their political beliefs.
New Prisoner Amnesty Announced
Asked about the state of political freedoms in the country and in particular about the fate of two former members of the previous cabinet whose whereabouts are unknown, Berdymukhammedov chose that moment to announce that there will now be amnesties for prisoners during each of the country's official holidays instead of an amnesty once a year, as has been customary in the past.
“This year for the national holiday, we will give amnesty to 9,000 prisoners," he said. "The commission [for amnesty] which I created, this commission is working on it. Regarding your inquiry whether those particular prisoners are alive, I’ve already told you -- I am still a [new] president. I am not involved with these issues. I am busy with the well-being of our nation, but I am positive that they are alive.”
During the tenure of his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in December, the mandatory reading for all students in Turkmenistan was a book called “Rukhnama,” a mixture of revisionist history and moral guidelines written by Niyazov.
Berdymukhammedov told the audience that “Rukhnama” is a cultural asset of Turkmenistan and there are no plans to retire it. “The book ‘Rukhnama’ -- and I want to emphasize this -- the book will be mandatory reading in all educational institutions, from kindergarten through college. Why? Because it contains a lot of wisdom related to our heritage,” he said.
Asked why Western NGOs are not allowed to operate in Turkmenistan, he said the question is moot.
“Please, this is not an issue. There are no restrictions," he said. "By the way, let me tell you that just before our departure to the U.S. we were approached by some young [Turkmen] people who were studying here in America. They presented their program regarding some environmental issues. We were pleased to accommodate them. [We] sent their application to the Ministry of Justice for registration. I think by our return they will receive a license. The same procedures apply for [U.S.] NGOs."
Denials Follow Tough Questions
Some of the students participating in the question-and-answer session wanted to know more about freedom of the press and freedom of expression in Turkmenistan. In the last decade, Freedom House, the U.S. NGO that measures freedom around the word, has given Turkmenistan its lowest score for both freedom of the press and human rights.
At Columbia, Berdymukhammedov denied that either is a problem in Turkmenistan.
“There was never in Turkmenistan any pressure on the press. In general, I would like to say to the youth that in Turkmenistan there is a big newspaper for youth. ...
"And to find solutions to such problems [as freedom of the press]," he continued, "I appointed as editor in chief a student, a student from a Turkmen university. If it is not sufficient, well, thank you. By the way, if I’m not mistaken, the student is a sophomore, right? No, he’s a senior -- editor in chief of the newspaper for youth, a member of the government already.”
At the conclusion of his presentation at Columbia, Berdymukhammedov urged all who are interested to know more about Turkmenistan, its economy, and other issues to approach and talk to the members of his delegation, which included several ministers and two deputy prime ministers.
Efforts by RFE/RL to speak with delegation members were unsuccessful.
Turkmenistan: Rights Groups Want Tough Questions To Accompany U.S. VisitRights activists have urged the international community to challenge Turkmenistan's president during his current visit to the United States. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov arrived on September 23 for the first U.S. visit by a Turkmen leader since 1998. He is there to address the UN General Assembly and promote trade with his energy-rich country. But rights groups say it's an opportunity to demand questions around the death in custody in 2006 of RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova, and to press for action to match hints at reform.
September 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- President Berdymukhammedov's five-day U.S. itinerary includes an appearance today at Columbia University's World Leaders Forum, as well as a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and an address to the UN General Assembly on September 26.
Berdymukhammedov's five-year term began in February, after a hastily organized election that followed the death in December of Saparmurat Niyazov. Niyazov kept Turkmenistan's 5 million people largely isolated from the outside world for nearly two decades -- and prevented meaningful dialogue between Ashgabat and the international community.
Berdymukhammedov has made tentative reform pledges since taking over in December -- and then being elected in February -- and his speech on September 26 will make him the first Turkmen leader to take the rostrum before the UN General Assembly since 1995.
But rights activists are warning the international community not to allow that milestone to obscure blunt discussion with Turkmenistan's new leader.
'Close And Constant Watch'
Oleg Panfilov, a media analyst who heads the of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service today that pledges of greater openness are not enough.
"I can't predict what steps the Turkmen president may take in the future," Panfilov said, "but I think he should be under close and constant watch. It's good that various international organizations remind us regularly that there are problems in Turkmenistan with freedom of speech, which has never existed. There should be conditions created for normal journalism to emerge in Turkmenistan. The Turkmen president shouldn't just talk. He should act, too."
In an open letter to Rice, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) argues that the first U.S. visit by a Turkmen head of state in nine years offers "a unique opportunity to engage [Berdymukhammedov]...on human rights and press freedom."
Muradova, a 58-year-old correspondent for RFE/RL and a former rights monitor for the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation on Human Rights (THF), died in Turkmen custody under unclear circumstances in September 2006. She had been imprisoned on a six-year term stemming from charges of ammunition possession that human rights groups said were fabricated.
Uncovering The Truth
In its letter, the CPJ "encouraged" Rice to press for answers to "the many questions surrounding Muradova's death in prison under former leader Saparmurat Niyazov, and to ask President Berdymukhammedov for his personal involvement in uncovering the truth about her death."
"Uncovering the truth about Ogulsapar Muradova's death, as well as revealing the fates of co-defendants [Annakurban] Amanklychev and [Sapardurdy] Khadzhiyev, will be an important first step toward mending Turkmenistan's press freedom and human rights record," the group said.
Muradova's family told RFE/RL that there was clear evidence of violence when authorities allowed them to view her body.
The CPJ reminded Rice that "authorities have resisted international calls for an independent investigation into [Muradova's] death while failing to release official autopsy results."
Elsa Vidal, head of the Europe desk at Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that Berdymukhammedov needs to know that Muradova's case will not just go away, and that it is also not an isolated case.
"We want to remind him that journalists have been killed and that there is a need for a formal investigation of this death [and] that other journalists are still in jail -- and everybody here is very worried about their condition, especially their health condition," she said.
So while Berdymukhammedov is no doubt hoping to portray his administration as an engine of change -- and his country as a potentially valuable partner for energy investment and trade -- skeptics caution against placing too much emphasis on what he says during this five-day visit.
Signals, they say, are only as useful as the actions that follow.
What Can Ashgabat Offer Investors Apart From Gas?
Berdymukhammedov is due to make his first speech at the UN General Assembly session in New York on September 26. He is also expected to meet U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
On the sidelines of the visit, Berdymukhammedov will also have talks with U.S. business executives. Americans are among many investors competing for deals with this gas-rich country, which has relied on Russia's state natural-gas monopoly Gazprom for its gas exports so far.
Following President Saparmurat Niyazov's death in December 2006, Western energy corporations intensified contacts with Turkmenistan. Chevron, British Petroleum, Total, and others have expressed interest in its hydrocarbon resources.
What else can Berdymukhammedov offer potential U.S. investors?
Not A Market Economy
Arkadi Dubnov, a Central Asia correspondent for the Russian daily "Vremya Novostei," tells RFE/RL that Turkmenistan does not seem to have very much to offer. "What does Turkmenistan produce? What Turkmen commodities are there on the market that we know about? There is Turkmen cotton," he says. "But there is no Turkmen grain. They import it. There is a minimal private sector. There cannot be a market economy in a country with a fixed currency exchange rate."
Indeed, Turkmenistan was consistently among the world's top 10 cotton producers. But drought and poor harvests in recent years have led to an almost 50 percent decline in cotton exports.
An overwhelming majority of the enterprises in Turkmenistan remain government-owned and receive plan goals for production just as they did in Soviet times.
Bairam Shikhmuradov is a leader of the unregistered Republican Party of Turkmenistan. He is also a son of former Turkmen Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who has been imprisoned on charges of masterminding the alleged November 2002 assassination attempt on Niyazov.
Shikhmuradov tells RFE/RL from Moscow that switching to a market economy is "undoubtedly out of the question" in Turkmenistan because all major contracts with foreign partners have only been made by the government. "It has been very difficult to conduct foreign economic activity by private entities because they faced enormous pressure and had many obstacles in currency exchange, customs, and stock-exchange regulations," he says.
Most Turkmen Still Live In Poverty
Due to the late Niyazov's unwillingness to adopt market-oriented reforms and the government's misuse of oil and natural gas revenues, an estimated 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
Before his trip to the United States, Berdymukhammedov vowed to accelerate economic reforms, and make it easier for foreign investors to operate in the country.
He said at a government meeting on September 10 that Turkmenistan needs "an absolutely different pace of growth" in order to "move closer to developed countries and give our people a better life."
He urged his cabinet to stimulate economic growth and restructure state corporations.
Berdymukhammedov had hinted about his intention to reform the economy earlier. His election platform included promises to create a friendly environment for foreign investors. Among his plans was the construction of a natural-gas pipeline to China by 2009, the creation of free-trade zones in border areas in he southern Balkhan Province, and the completion of the Amudarya railroad bridge in Lebap Province.
After becoming independent in 1991, Turkmenistan suffered from a lack of export routes for natural gas and from obligations on extensive short-term external debt.
The situation changed a few years later. Starting in 2003, Turkmenistan saw its total exports grow by an average of 15 percent a year -- largely due to higher oil and gas prices on world markets.
In 2006, the Niyazov's government raised natural-gas export prices to its main customer, Russia, from $66 per 1,000 cubic meters to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters. And the country's GDP grew by 6 percent in 2006, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Lies, Damned Lies, And Statistics
The international financial institutions' assessments of the Turkmen economy differ greatly from official Turkmen statistics. Ashgabat officials reported some 20 percent economic growth annually in recent years. Most information about the economy remains a state secret.
Berdymukhammedov urged the introduction of a modern accounting system to improve national statistics. He said this would play a "huge role" in attracting more foreign investments. He also said the state's control in some state enterprises should be decreased to make them more efficient.
Shikhmuradov says small and medium-sized entrepreneurship remains in an "embryonic state of development" because of high risks and an unpredictable economic environment. He says that since Niyazov's demise and Berdymukhammedov's promises to liberalize the economy, many foreign companies are more willing to do business with Turkmenistan.
Shikhmuradov sees Berdymukhammedov's promises to liberalize the economy as a positive step."The fact that he spoke about it is good because no one had been brave enough to say something like this before," he notes. "Niyazov used to speak about liberalization differently. He understood it differently. The question is what will follow the statement. Are these mere words or will they be followed by concrete actions? We are going to see this very soon."
It is still not known how genuine Berdymukhammedov's intentions to liberalize the economy are and how far he can go in his reformist attempts within the current political system. Experts note that many members of the Turkmen political elite have benefited from the current economic system and therefore will try to maintain the status quo.
It also remains unclear whether U.S. corporations will express interest in any sector other than energy during Berdymukhammedov's trip to New York.
So far, few -- if any -- foreign companies dealing with the Turkmen government have shown an inclination to insist either on adherence to free-market principles or respect for human rights.
Turkmen President's First U.S. Trip To Mix Business And Politics
Berdymukhammedov's trip is at the invitation of the UN; on September 26 he will become the first Turkmen president to address the UN General Assembly.
Erika Dailey, the director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, told RFE/RL that Berdymukhammedov's speech at the UN has significant symbolic importance.
"It's the first time that he -- as president of independent Turkmenistan -- will have addressed the General Assembly, and it's certainly also symbolic of his attempts to break the isolation that has mired Turkmenistan for so many years and made it an international pariah," Dailey said.
As for the content of his speech, Daily said Berdymukhammedov is likely to "sound tones of cooperation, of high regard for the UN and of its efforts, and of Turkmenistan's willingness to be open and collaborative with the United Nations and international parties and -- at the same time -- that it is maintaining its stance of autonomy and neutrality." He is also expected to address drug trafficking and counterterrorism efforts, subjects that are high on the UN's agenda, she said.
Though Berdymukhammedov's official reason for visiting the United States is to speak to the UN General Assembly, he is also due to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sometime during his five-day stay in New York. A delegation of officials and businesspeople accompanying Berdymukhammedov will travel to Washington and Houston to discuss improving political and economic cooperation with U.S. business leaders.
Emerging From Isolation
The meetings with U.S. companies not only underscore the U.S. desire to participate in Turkmenistan's oil and natural-gas development and export projects, but is also another sign of Turkmenistan's emergence from years of isolation under Berdymukhammedov's predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in December.
John MacLeod, a senior editor at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that Western companies have much to offer Turkmenistan. "I think that Berdymukhammedov and his officials will certainly consider proposals from Western companies quite seriously because [those companies] do have lots of experience," he said.
At the same time, agreements between U.S. businesses and Turkmen officials are another sign of resurgent competition between the United States, Russia, and China for access to Central Asia's energy resources.
Russia has controlled Turkmen natural-gas exports since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in late 1991 because the only pipelines leading out of Turkmenistan passed through Russian territory. A deal between Turkmenistan and Iran led to the construction of a modest new gas pipeline between those two countries. Only recently, with the conclusion of a deal with China, does Turkmenistan look set to start exporting the vast amount of natural gas and oil the Turkmen government has always claimed it could provide to world markets.
Washington has for years urged Turkmenistan to join projects to build pipelines along the bottom of the Caspian Sea that would bypass Russia entirely and bring Turkmen energy exports to Turkey, and on to Europe. Berdymukhammedov has expressed an interest in joining these projects; that will undoubtedly be a topic of discussion between U.S. and Turkmen government and business representatives.
Talking Up Democratic Change
Berdymukhammedov is also due to speak at New York's Columbia University on September 24. Erika Dailey said that those who follow events in Turkmenistan will be looking for Berdymukhammedov to comment on democratic reforms inside his country. Discussions of democracy and respect for human rights, she said, "have become increasingly realistic in the slightly thawed political atmosphere in Turkmenistan" since Niyazov's death in December.
The IWPR's MacLeod said the international community might give Berdymukhammedov only a little more time to demonstrate that he will actually carry out such reforms.
"In the first six to nine months of his rule, President Berdymukhammedov has given the impression that things are slowly getting better and -- if they are not getting better -- that he perhaps would like them to get better," MacLeod said. "Obviously this sort of good will, if you like, can't go on forever. At some point there will have to be really definite improvement; say, a year from now, I think the international community would have wanted to see some really concrete improvements."
Berdymukhammedov's trip represents a maturing of Turkmenistan's foreign policy. Though that foreign policy remains firmly based on economic relations -- more specifically selling its energy exports -- Berdymukhammedov is developing a balancing act that his Central Asian neighbors have been working on for years.
Previously, Turkmenistan was forced to deal exclusively with Russia, the only export route possible for Turkmen gas. Later the Turkmen-Iranian gas pipeline opened, but, more recently, deals with China bring the promise of huge exports via a new pipeline.
Dealing with the U.S. merely augments the options open to Turkmenistan in the future as it tries to option the maximum price for its energy resources.
(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)