This article can also be found at Tremr.
Ask just about anyone in the Western world to point to Turkmenistan on a world map and watch them instantly become baffled. Little do they know, however, that the little hermit state of Turkmenistan has some of the worst human rights abuses in the world. World Press Freedom Index ranked the Central Asian nation at just one spot above North Korea, and one spot below Syria in its 2015 report.
Turkmenistan’s massively authoritarian political system has repeatedly come under fire from international organizations and human rights activists. Mass arbitrary incarcerations of so-called political dissidents and religious “extremists” are a significant problem. Once jailed, getting out alive is extremely unlikely, as torture is used very liberally and food rations for prisoners is miniscule, often to the point of starvation. In one account by former prisoner Geldy Kyarizov, prisoners were let out of their cells for only seven minutes once per week.
The government holds tight control over the media, making it very difficult for NGOs to operate inside the country. Phone conversations are monitored and internet access is limited and controlled by the state. Foreign news outlets are completely barred from entering the country.
International human rights organizations continuously struggle to make progress in Turkmenistan, as the government does not allow entrance to anyone with the intent of monitoring its human rights records.
While current President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has made various moderate changes to Turkmenistan’s historically dreadful human rights policies (or lack thereof) after the death of the iron-fisted former President Saparmurat Niyazov, the current state of rights of Turkmen citizens continues to remain abominable.
Nonetheless, Berdymukhammedov has managed to cultivate ties with international giants such as the US, Russia, Europe and China, given its rich stock of natural resources.
In November John Kerry became the first Secretary of State to meet officials in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, since 1992. The meeting focused on the mass incarcerations of political dissidents and religious practitioners. Established in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union, the US’s diplomatic relations with Turkmenistan stalled during the George W. Bush administration due to a shift in priorities; military and strategic cooperation with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan became the focus in Central Asia at the time.
The Obama administration re-prioritized the agenda in Central Asia, putting Turkmenistan, Central Asia’s largest natural gas producer, at the top of the list. Although now back on the US’s radar, the Obama administration has been far too lenient with regard to condemning Turkmenistan’s human rights abuses.
US leaders have, in general, struggled to gain leverage in Turkmenistan, as Russia continues to have a strong grasp on the former Soviet nation, making solidifying rapprochement with the US exceedingly difficult. China has also proven itself as a key actor in Eurasia, further heightening the struggle.
The US has developed strategies for strengthening ties with Turkmenistan, including the signing of “a trade and investment framework agreement” which would effectively expand trade opportunities within Central Asia. US foreign assistance objectives also include “strengthening Turkmenistan’s ability to manage its international borders and cooperate on regional security issues” with the intent of “encouraging citizens to play a greater role in civil society.”
On paper the US’s strategies regarding Turkmenistan appear comprehensive and progressive, but US leaders need to develop a much more stringent strategy for tying human rights issues into economic and diplomatic relations if it wants to see any improvement in the Turkmen government’s dire treatment of its people.
*Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.
Photo courtesy of Radio Free Europe.