On April 11, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament held its first hearing on the Union’s Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Turkmenistan. While the PCA has been pending since the late 1990s, Europe has avoided finalizing it over human rights concerns and the profoundly undemocratic behavior of the Turkmen government. Unsurprisingly, human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch castigated the decision to hold a hearing and urged the Parliament to defer approval until Turkmenistan met its human rights benchmarks. A cursory look at Turkmen political life makes it clear those benchmarks won’t likely be met anytime soon.
Of all the former Soviet republics, Turkmenistan is arguably the most quixotic. From 1991 to 2006, a totalitarian cult of personality centered on the late President Saparmurat Niyazov bound citizens of the newly independent nation to their leader at the same time basic infrastructure disintegrated and the country was cut off from the outside world. Niyazov styled himself Turkmenbashi or “Great Leader of the Turkmen,” and his book of philosophical musings and historical fiction, the Ruhnama, was held up to the Turkmen as important as the holy Quran. Turkmenbashi himself claimed to have made a special arrangement with God, wherein any person who read the Ruhnama three times would automatically receive a free pass to heaven.
While Niyazov’s New Age holy book and titles made for entertaining international headlines, his arbitrary and totalitarian policies inflicted lasting harm on the population. The late leader was known for banning things he personally disapproved of, such as gold teeth, facial hair, smoking, and lip-syncing. There was also the infamous Walk of Health, in which government ministers and officials were forced to take a lengthy walk along the “Serdar Path” built by Niyazov in observance of national Health Day. The president, of course, accompanied them in the exercise – flying in his personal helicopter.
The obligatory walk in the park might have been seen as a positive example of the government’s commitment to public health, but Niyazov’s administration went on to take the disastrous step of closing every hospital located outside the capital of Ashgabat as the leader thought them unnecessary. In a country larger than Germany, where travel is both physically and monetarily difficult, the order left the vast majority of the population without any access to appropriate medical facilities. When combined with untrained staff and medical education that focused more on the Ruhnama than modern techniques, the country’s counterproductive approach to rural healthcare proved fatal to many and even resulted in an outbreak of the bubonic plague. The man who was responsible for implementing this project, then-health minister Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, succeeded Niyazov as president after Turkmenbashi’s death in 2006.
Since taking power, Berdimuhamedov has undone some of the most horrendous excesses of the Niyazov era (regional hospitals, for example, were reopened) but he has diligently followed his predecessor’s example in creating a personality cult and curtailing any semblance of real dissent. In a country where both traditional media and Internet access are tightly controlled by the state, local authorities in Ashgabat began forcing residents to take down their ubiquitous satellite dishes – the only real way for many of them to access independent media from the outside world – in a concerted campaign last year. In its most recent Freedom of the Press report, Freedom House assigned Turkmenistan one of the worst press freedom rankings in the world.
With its enduring reputation as one of the world’s most repressive states, the question of Turkmenistan’s relationship with Europe comes down to a debate over whether the economic advantages the EU stands to gain are enough to let it swallow concerns over rights abuses and autocracy. Turkmenistan is sitting on the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves and is among the world’s top 15 producers. With Iran and Russia scaling back imports and China’s economic slump reducing demand, the Turkmen government is eager to find new markets for its key export.
Energy-hungry European states, for their part, would be equally happy to buy Turkmen natural gas (which would be imported via a new Trans-Caspian Pipeline) as part of wider efforts to diversify their energy supplies. In meeting their energy needs, the EU seems happy to leave its competing commitment to human rights by the wayside. As the European External Action Service diplomatically puts it: “The EU wishes to increase its dialogue and cooperation with Turkmenistan, and hopes to strengthen its institutional framework of cooperation with the ratification of the PCA.”
However, the European Union isn’t the only international body getting cozy with Berdimuhamedov’s government. Britain’s Department of Health has come under fire for its plans to send representatives to the World Health Organization (WHO) European Regional Meeting in Ashgabat. That conference will focus on the implementation of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), with the choice of venue perhaps influenced by the strident anti-smoking laws implemented by Niyazov and maintained by Berdimuhamedov. While the WHO actively criticizes European Union bodies for what in their view is a violation of the FCTC’s Article 5.3 (relating to officials’ interaction with the tobacco industry), it has lauded the Turkmen government for its tobacco control efforts.
The WHO’s singular embrace of Turkmenistan comes across as contradictory, considering Berdimuhamedov (himself a dentist by training) still oversees one of the most dysfunctional healthcare systems in the world. The current president may have re-opened provincial hospitals, but the quality of medical care available outside of the capital has not progressed beyond the 1970s. The government has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into cutting-edge facilities in Ashgabat, but hospitals elsewhere lack running water, modern toilets, and even heating systems.
Turkmenistan has not made appreciable progress in respecting human rights norms since the PCA process stalled in 1999, but its natural gas reserves may be enough to overcome European compunctions over Ashgabat’s worst abuses. Considering the rush of proposed trade and infrastructure deals that followed the lifting of sanctions between Europe and Iran after the conclusion of the nuclear deal, this may well be the start of the Union’s move toward economic realpolitik.
Andrew Witthoeft is a EU affairs advisor for an international consulting firm.