Accessibility links

Breaking News

Central Asia Report: December 7, 2007

Turkmenistan: A New Obstacle For Access To The Airwaves

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Is the ban on satellite dishes only intended to beautify Ashgabat? (Chronicles of Turkmenistan)

Since taking over this year, new Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has been viewed hopefully as a possible reformer who might open up one of the world's most repressive societies. But a new order to remove all private satellite dishes from homes in Ashgabat -- which critics say could block access to independent information -- is quickly tarnishing that image.

After holding cordial talks with EU officials in Brussels in November, Berdymukhammedov returned home with a burnished image as a man the West can do business with -- a man apparently set to free up Turkmenistan after the bizarre reign of his late predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

But in a nationally televised speech on November 30, Berdymukhammedov seemed to take a step backward. He announced he had ordered the minister of communications to remove satellite dishes from apartment blocks in Ashgabat, the capital. In their place, he said, would go "a single powerful dish" on each building.

"Perhaps this does not pose such a big problem," Berdymukhammedov said, adding that the move was intended to remove a blight on the skyline and make Ashgabat a prettier city.

Given the country's recent history of state control and intimidation, it is unsurprising that there are skeptics who fear the real motives lie elsewhere.

While the president did not specify who would be in control of the single dishes, rights activists suspect the government will now determine what Turkmen can tune in to.

Farid Tuhbatullin, an exiled activist and chairman of the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, sees Berdymukhammedov's move as a clear violation of Turkmen civil rights.

"They [satellite dishes] are the only source of information in Turkmenistan at present," Tuhbatullin says. "If they are removed or, as the president said, replaced by a single dish, it will be a violation of a right to receive free information. Not only does it violate current Turkmen legislation, but also human rights -- the right to own private property and the right to receive and choose information."

Satellite television penetration in Ashgabat is significant. With a flood of cheap, Chinese-made dishes that cost as little as $50, Tuhbatullin says almost every family in the capital of 500,000 people has at least one, maybe more. He said people in Turkmenistan can access the Hotbird or AsiaSat satellites, and that they watch mostly Russian, Turkish, and Iranian channels, as well as Western networks such as CNN and BBC. Residents of the border areas near Uzbekistan watch Uzbek television as well.

New President Loses Liberal Sheen

Berdymukhammedov, a former dentist, had given hope to many inside and outside Turkmenistan after coming to power earlier this year. For over two decades, the country lived under the rule of Niyazov, who created a notorious cult of personality. He died in December 2006.

In one of his first moves, Berdymukhammedov reinstated pensions for elderly citizens, which Niyazov had cancelled. It was welcome news in a country where nearly half the population lives in poverty despite huge fossil-fuel resources. There were also reports that traveling inside the country and in border areas with neighboring Uzbekistan had become easier in recent months.

And in a move praised by Western governments, Berdymukhammedov ordered the release of nearly a dozen prisoners, including a former chief mufti, in August. However, his amnesty of prisoners announced in early October did not include prominent political prisoners -- opponents of Niyazov's regime.

Berdymukhammedov meeting with EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner in Brussels (official site)

In the West, which hopes to gain access to Turkmen energy resources, Berdymukhammedov has also been viewed with cautious optimism. His new "multivector" foreign policy has resulted in many more contacts with Western diplomats, even taking him to Brussels in early November for landmark meetings with the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, and Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson.

Yet his order to remove satellite dishes has drawn a cloud over this emerging positive image. Not even Niyazov, who had total control over domestic media, managed to remove satellite dishes from people's homes.

Oleg Panfilov, who heads the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, believes the real reason behind the order is not to improve Ashgabat's look, but to "deprive" the Turkmen people of independent information. "I am becoming more and more confident that Berdymukhammedov is not a liberal at all," Panfilov says. "It's clear that steps he has taken and his public statements are aimed primarily at the West. [In practice], there are no serious changes."

Panfilov speculates that Berdymukhammedov may be uneasy about the Turkmen public getting independent information via satellite because he does not feel his authority is strong enough. "Niyazov was more powerful and in control and therefore did not really impose a ban on satellite dishes in practice," Panfilov says.

Satellite dishes sprang up like mushrooms in early 1990s, when Berdymukhammedov's predecessor tightened his grip on local media and banned foreign media outlets. The situation in some ways paralleled what was happening in neighboring Iran. There, satellite dishes were banned in 1995, partly because of broadcasts by Iranian opposition groups beamed mostly from the United States.

Previous Iranian governments had rarely enforced that ban, acknowledging that the dishes would sprout back up every time authorities tried to round them up. But under the hard-line rule of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, police are instructed to crack down on independent satellite dishes and organize regular raids that may go as far as to include the use of helicopters, to locate and confiscate privately owned dishes. Owners are likely to be imprisoned and expected to pay a heavy fine.

It is yet to be seen whether Turkmen authorities will go as far as their Iranian counterparts, but the signs are not encouraging.

The Turkmen president's speech on November 30 also assumed some of the bizarre tones that characterized Niyazov's rhetoric. "Streets in the city are extremely dirty, and there are tree leaves everywhere," Berdymukhammedov said, ordering the use of recently imported vehicles to clean city streets.

He also ordered the Interior Ministry and public organizations to take measures against smokers and their litter. "One cannot go around without seeing cigarette butts everywhere in the city. Streets are full of smoking people," he said. "The problem has lasted so long because some senior officials are smokers themselves. There should not be such things at all."

The speech seemed straight from the playbook of Niyazov, who famously condemned gold-capped teeth, long hair and beards, and other seemingly personal choices. He also banned ballet, opera, a philharmonic orchestra, and a circus. The leader called Turkmenbashi -- the "Father of All Turkmen" -- believed they violated national values.

Perhaps his successor agrees.

(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)

Moscow Plays Its Cards Well At OSCE Madrid Meeting

By Jean-Christophe Peuch
VIENNA, December 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) annual ministerial council on November 29-30 was the scene of open confrontation between the United States and Russia.

Though Russia was criticized for its dispute with the OSCE's main election-monitoring body and forced to compromise on Kazakhstan's OSCE chairmanship bid, Moscow nonetheless emerged unscathed from the meeting in Madrid.

The disagreements meant that the talks concluded without a final declaration, and the OSCE's outgoing chairman-in-office, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, closed the meeting with a simple political statement.

Ministerial declarations are politically binding blueprints that set the organization's priorities for the incoming chairman-in-office. But because of the political squabbles, there hasn't been such a declaration since the 2002 ministerial council in Porto.

But envoys of the OSCE's 56 participating states did decide on 10 issues, including one on increasing the organization's support for Afghanistan's border security and management.

Compromise On Kazakhstan

Ministers also agreed to grant Kazakhstan the OSCE chairmanship in 2010, with Greece taking the chair in 2009 and Lithuania in 2011.

Kazakhstan had applied to lead the organization in 2009, but that bid left the OSCE participating states profoundly divided. A decision on that issue should have been reached at last year's Brussels ministerial council, but was postponed to give Astana more time to demonstrate its commitment to human rights and democratic values.

Although Kazakhstan has made no noticeable progress in those regards -- even going backward in the view of many observers -- Washington and other critics eventually lifted their objections and agreed on a Spanish-sponsored compromise to give Kazakhstan the chairmanship in 2010.

The decision was finalized only two hours before the ministerial council's closing session and after much negotiating between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns.

Reaching consensus on Kazakhstan's bid was of critical importance for the OSCE.

Russia had warned that if Astana's bid to chair the organization was not granted -- and without conditions -- Moscow would block any decision on the OSCE's 2009, 2010, and 2011 chairmanships. That would have left the organization without a troika when Finland takes the helm on January 1, 2008.

The troika is one of the OSCE's main institutions. It consists of the chairman-in-office, its predecessor, and its successor. The troika makes political decisions for the OSCE.

The fact that Kazakhstan will lead the OSCE only in 2010 -- and not a year earlier, as the Kremlin initially insisted -- has been interpreted by some commentators as a setback for Russia.

Moscow's daily "Kommersant" on December 1 described the Madrid ministerial council as "one of the greatest fiascos Russia has endured in years."

The daily noted that in addition to defeating Kazakhstan's 2009 chairmanship bid, the United States and other Western nations overturned Russia's proposals to overhaul the OSCE's Office for Human Rights and Democratic Institutions (ODIHR) and criticized Moscow for its decision to freeze its commitments under the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty.

Moscow's Plans For ODIHR

Arguably, Russia may have lost a battle. But it has definitely not lost the war.

First, Moscow has long been seeking to boost the OSCE's role in political-military issues to counterbalance NATO's influence. Bearing that in mind, the future of the CFE was debated at length in Madrid, and that in itself is an achievement for Russia.

Second, Kazakhstan's gaining of the OSCE chair in 2010 still fits into Moscow's longer-term plans regarding the organization.

Russian representatives had brought with them a draft proposal that recommended that the functioning of the ODIHR -- which is the OSCE's main election-monitoring body -- be strictly regulated and supervised by participating states. Under existing procedures, ODIHR does not report to the Permanent Council -- the OSCE's main decision-making body, in which all participating states have an equal voice -- but to the chairman-in-office.

The United States, which ranks among ODIHR's strongest supporters, has criticized the Russian plan as an attempt to undermine the independence and effectiveness of what Undersecretary of State Burns described as "the world's premier organization for election monitoring."

Addressing reporters ahead of the Madrid meeting, Burns warned that Washington "will not give one millimeter of opening to any proposal that will weaken ODIHR.... It's just not possible at this ministerial [council] or any time in the future."

Burns's views were supported by other western participants, including French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who on November 29 called upon participants to "preserve ODIHR's autonomy."

Addressing the media at the close of the Madrid ministerial, Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin said his country would see that OSCE institutions are strengthened when it takes the helm of the organization. He also said that Astana will not back any initiative that aims to weaken ODIHR's mandate to monitor elections.

The pledge could be viewed as a token response to Burns's earlier warning that "any country that wishes to be a chairman-in-office of the OSCE must commit itself to preserve the institutions of the OSCE." Yet, it does not contradict Russia's vision of how the organization should operate.

Russia denies that its plan -- which has been endorsed by Kazakhstan and another five CIS states (Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) -- aims to weaken ODIHR.

Lavrov said in Madrid that ODIHR's mandate "is already weak enough. It has been completely watered down. We want to strengthen it and we're going to tackle that."

An OSCE Charter

Russia's ODIHR reform plan is part of a more ambitious scheme whose objective, according to its authors, is to restore the balance between the OSCE's human-rights "basket" and the organization's other two dimensions: political-military affairs and economic and environmental issues.

Moscow insists that the OSCE must adopt a charter that regulates the activities of all its institutions, shifts its priorities on security issues, and establishes overall budget transparency. Russia has accused the United States and other Western countries of using OSCE field missions as political instruments to meddle in the internal affairs of post-Soviet states by providing them with unlimited and uncontrolled extrabudgetary funds.

Washington opposes Moscow's reform plan. "A charter won't help the OSCE do its job better than it does today," Gary D. Robbins, who heads the U.S. State Department's Office for European Security and Political Affairs, said in Vienna on November 8.

Addressing his OSCE counterparts on November 29, Lavrov suggested that experts start working on a draft charter to be put to the vote at next year's ministerial council in Helsinki. But his proposal was rejected.

Moscow, in turn, blocked two draft decisions on effective participation and representation in democratic societies and on strengthening the OSCE's engagement with human-rights defenders and independent, national human-rights institutions.

It also vetoed a draft decision of the "Convention on the international legal personality, legal capacity, privileges, and immunity of the OSCE." Speaking on behalf of the European Union at the end of the ministerial council, Portugal's representative regretted that this text, which he said "would give the OSCE the recognition of a fully-fledged international organization," was not approved.

Lavrov made it clear in his address to the ministerial council that Russia will not back the Legal Personality Convention until its own proposal for a new OSCE charter is adopted.

Russia also toppled another draft, which should have been included in the final ministerial declaration and had been proposed by Moldova and Georgia. It demanded that Russia withdraw all its troops, military equipment, and ammunition stockpiles from Moldova's separatist region of Transdniester and provide documented evidence that it has vacated the Gudauta military base in Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia.

Russia, which claims it has fulfilled its military commitments to Moldova and Georgia, has been blocking such a declaration for the past five years.

Kazakhstan To Assume OSCE Chairmanship In 2010

By Bruce Pannier

U.S. Undersecretary Burns allowed for some compromise in Madrid

MADRID, December 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan will become the first ex-Soviet state to assume the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), it was announced here at the close of the organization's annual ministerial meeting.

The oil-rich Central Asian state will occupy the chair in 2010 -- one year later than it had sought, OSCE spokeswoman Virginie Coulloudon told RFE/RL just after the two-day summit's final press conference on November 30.

The United States reportedly gave its backing after securing a Kazakh "pledge" that Astana would "protect" the OSCE's election-monitoring body, whose role Russia had proposed to alter.

Contentious Image Boost

Astana had considered it symbolically important that Kazakhstan be the first of the former Soviet republics to lead the 56-country organization. The Kazakh government has for years told its people that holding the OSCE chairmanship would show that the international community was taking notice of Kazakhstan's growing importance in the world community.

Critics pointed to the contradiction between Kazakhstan's weak human rights record and the OSCE's stated goals to promote democracy and human rights.

The OSCE's election-monitoring arm, the Organization for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), monitored Kazakhstan's parliamentary elections in August and acknowledged that the country had made progress, but said a number of international standards went unmet.

Russia, meanwhile, solidly backed Kazakhstan's bid for the OSCE chairmanship. Speaking in Madrid on November 30, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov chided detractors.

"Unfortunately, during the several years that have preceded today's meeting, there were absolutely unacceptable and unseemly maneuvers concerning this bid aimed at creating conditions on the right of a specific country -- an equal member of the OSCE -- to chair this organization by making demands on its internal and external policies," Lavrov said.

Hot-Button Topics

Russia and the United States came into the summit with sharply different views on a number of issues, most pertaining to Moscow's efforts to reorient the OSCE and its agencies toward security issues and away from the democracy agenda.

In Madrid, their differences were on display in the cool response Washington gave to Moscow's proposal -- backed by Kazakhstan and five other CIS countries -- to limit to 50 the number of ODIHR monitors sent to cover any future election and to put monitoring teams under the control of participating states.

"The United States will protect ODIHR," U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said on November 30. "We will oppose the Russian proposal, which would weaken and perhaps even cripple ODIHR. We will not support any compromise proposal that would be negative or problematic or damaging to ODIHR."

The issue was clearly in the spotlight after the OSCE earlier this cancelled its mission to observe Russia's December 2 parliamentary elections because Moscow had repeatedly denied visa requests to ODIHR observers. Russian President Vladimir Putin subsequently accused the United States of being behind the OSCE's decision to pull out -- an allegation strongly denied by U.S. officials.

Russian officials, meanwhile, denied that they were attempting to undermine ODIHR. "I think that no one in the OSCE, including the Russian Federation, intends to weaken the mandate of ODIHR," Lavrov said on November 30. "This mandate, anyway, is weak -- totally vague -- and we want to strengthen it, and we are going to work on that."

ODIHR head Christian Strohal countered that opinion during an interview with RFE/RL on the sidelines of the summit. "We have a mandate for a long-term observation, and we try to fulfill this mandate as professionally and as effectively as we can," Strohal said. "We also appreciate the fact that we are joined in many elections which we observe by the parliamentarians from the Parliamentary Assembly [of the OSCE], who bring the particular expertise of politicians, parliamentarians who bring the particular expertise of politicians, parliamentarians."

Compromised Future?

In the end, compromise reportedly led to Kazakhstan being chosen to head the OSCE in 2010 and agreement on who would lead the organization through 2011.

Greece was chosen as chair in 2009, and Lithuania in 2011. Finland had already been set take over the chairmanship from Spain in 2008.

In closing out the summit, OSCE Chairman in Office Miguel Angel Moratinos said the developments were a sign of the stability of the organization.

But the jawboning that dominated much of the Madrid meeting could bolster perceptions that the most influential of the organization's participating states are moving along sharply different trajectories.