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EU Official Optimistic About Turkmen Rights Situation, Despite Setbacks

Riina Kionka

On June 24 in Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat, European Union officials opened what is expected to be a series of discussions on human rights in the country.

However, the talks got under way just days after Sazak Durdymuradov, a frequent contributor to RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, was arrested and reportedly beaten by Turkmen police in a case that throws into question the Central Asian state’s commitment to human rights.

RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Muhammad Tahir discussed the issue with Riina Kionka, the personal representative on human rights for Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief.

RFE/RL provided details and documents on the difficulties that its correspondents face in Turkmenistan to the EU delegation involved in human rights talks in Ashgabat. Do you know whether they managed to raise this issue with Turkmen officials during their talks on June 24 and if so, what their response was?

Riina Kionka:
The problems that were created for [Durdymuradov], these were happening just as we were having the human rights dialogue. In fact, we learned about this only after we had returned. There were ongoing meetings of the cooperation council between the EU and Turkmenistan, but those were on other issues.

So I can’t tell you for sure whether this was raised in these other meetings but because it was going on that same time. We couldn’t raise [it] at the human rights meeting because we didn’t know about it, simply. This came after the fact. But you can be assured that we are following up on this, on a number of different levels.

On June 25, the day after your talks, one of the EU officials in Ashgabat, Victor Maldonado, told Turkmen officials, and I’m quoting him: "We think we would be good [gas] customers…because we are ready to pay a good price." Isn’t this approach a double standard with regard to EU policy because, on the one hand, you say human rights is important, but on the other hand, you are trying to increase business contacts with Turkmenistan?

The [EU’s] Central Asia strategy is a broad-ranging program of tying in and emphasizing ties between Central Asian countries and the European Union as a whole and with member states. Part of that is, of course, energy. And part of that is human rights, as well. It does really have to be seen as a package deal.

And this is the whole point of having human rights talks alongside talks on other areas of the program. Of course, the European Union is interested in doing business with Turkmenistan. The EU is also interested in talking about human rights with Turkmenistan. I think the power of the program is in the fact that these are not separable. And this is a point that we were seeking to make to the Turkmeni authorities. It’s only through connections, business interests, commercial interests, that the EU is in a position to talk to Turkmenistan about human rights. If we just go on a vacuum, so to speak, about these issues, then we don’t have much leverage.

But many of RFE/RL's correspondents in Turkmenistan simply are not able to leave their homes; their kids have been dismissed from educational institutions. It has been the case for many years. How could the EU use its influence to improve the situation? Is there any mechanism that you are working on to help them or support them or somehow to push Turkmen authorities to do something to improve the situation of human rights in the country?

I have a personal stake in this question because I used to work for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty myself at the end of the 1980s. I have a very strong feeling about the protection of journalists, especially in the field.

What about particular mechanisms? Well, the EU, as you know, has a wide range of instruments, including technical assistance, including passing on legal and political know-how. And we’ve offered all of this to Turkmenistan in dealing with these particular issues. We’ve talked at length about the functioning of civil society, about the judiciary, about media, about freedom of movement -- all these things that touch the everyday life of journalists and others in Turkmenistan. But this is something that does not change overnight.

So what are the prospects of the EU-Turkmen relationship?

I think it’s on the upswing. I think it has a lot of potential. We are at the very, very beginning. We have to keep in mind that Turkmenistan has been a fairly isolated country for many years, and it’s just in the position of opening up and talking to others on any variety of issues, including this one. I’m rather optimistic.

The impression I had of the talks this week is that the Turkmeni side is interested in engaging -- on various issues more than on others, it’s true -- but our point of view in the EU is that we talk about all the issues. We don’t just talk about the ones that are of interest to us or only those that are of interest to Turkmenistan. That’s the way partnership works.

The Turkmen authorities are interested in engaging with the international community. What would be your suggestion if they would like to engage in a proper way with the EU, with the United Nations?

The key to opening up would be transparency and a state based on the rule of law. That is not only in the way laws are passed but also in the way they are implemented. That is something we have certainly learned in the EU.

We have many countries that have come out of a totalitarian past and have been able to make the transition successfully and have learned, along with all of our member states, that the rule of law and creating a transparent, noncorrupt situation is not only good for the people but it’s also good for business. So this is the basis; this is our point of departure.

Do you think Turkmenistan is heading in the direction you mention?

I think Turkmenistan is at the beginning of that way, yes.