USAID acting country representative Erin M. Cole hands over a certificate to a course participant in a program in Ashgabat co-sponsored with Chevron Nebitgaz B.V, as a portrait of President Berdymukhamedov beams above.
After a promising offer for bids a month ago, nothing more has been heard from the Turkmen government or Chevron on the prospects for American oil companies to gain permission to drill on the Caspian Sea shelf. It's not clear where Ashgabat will fit Americans after their dominant partnerships with China, Iran, and now Afghanistan, Pakistan and India in the TAPI pipeline. It's likely that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov will want to have some kind of cooperation with Western companies as part of his "multi-vector" foreign policy and desire to diversify routes to world markets for his country's considerable gas reserves.
Human rights activists are concerned that with the growing potential for Western involvement in Turkmenistan's extraction industries, long-standing problems of oppression and human rights abuse in Turkmenistan could tend to be overshadowed -- and opportunities lost for the democratic countries still willing to raise human rights issues. When the U.S. sent a delegation for talks this summer, oil and gas interests seemed to dominate and the State Department officials charged with raising the unwanted human rights topics appeared diminished.
Global Exchange and Crude Accountability, international human rights groups working for social, economic and environmental justice and accountability from trans-national corporations, have expressed grave doubts as to how energy companies can expect to get truthful reporting from the highly-closed Turkmen system -- and whether they can expect Turkmenistan to implement any corporate human rights policies in good faith.
Identified by Freedom House as one of the World’s Most Repressive Regimes in 2009 (and almost every year prior), Turkmenistan is a country with no freedom of the press, an authoritarian government, and a President who is quickly building a cult of personality rivaling that of the previous “President for Life,” Niyazov, who died suddenly of a heart attack in December 2006.
Further alarming is the fact that Turkmenistan’s government has no accountability mechanisms for reporting oil and gas revenues. The country’s previous president deposited petroleum funds in a semi-private, off budget account in Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt. President Berdymukhamedov has made no reforms in this area, and a newly touted “Stabilization Fund,” into which oil and gas revenues would be placed, remains a mystery as there is no public documentation that such a fund actually exists.
Kinman attended Chevron's Annual shareholder Meeting in May 2010 in order to raise the problem of accountability. Chevron CEO John Watson confirmed his company was in negotiations with the government of Turkmenistan, and said "I think we can do some good in Turkmenistan" although "we may not meet your standards".
Kinman reiterated on her blog that it's not about her own organization's standards, but the norms and best practices enshrined in international law.
The problem is how to implement these laudable goals in a setting like Turkmenistan, where virtually every major decision -- and many minor ones -- are decided by the president himself, and where his cronies and relatives are installed to maintain an authoritarian "vertikal" system from the top down, controlling every aspect of society. Corporate leaders tend to think that trade is the tide that will raise all democracy and human rights boats and that they can bring about change incrementally. Social justice advocates counter that what they see as collusion with abusive governments merely sinks any boats managing to float by legitimizing corrupt and authoritarian practices.
Recently, Turkmenistan joined the regional group that is a member of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), dedicated to preventing money-laundering and financing of terrorism. But FATF still declares Turkmenistan as having "strategic deficiencies" and Ashgabat is still on the long road to reform -- without the assurances of the validity of good intentions that more press freedom and registration for independent watchdog groups would undoubtedly provide.
Not waiting for reforms to happen by themselves, Chevron has jumped in to teach Turkmen professionals directly the standards for international accounting in the global economy. In a joint program supported by both USAID and Chevron, 28 specialists from Turkmenistan’s key economic agencies completed a month-long training program on managerial accounting, tax, and law. The program raises some troubling questions about how impartial Chevron can be in assessing progress when it has a stake in the state-approved people it has trained -- and whether it is willing to confront the government about its many human rights problems.
The window for affecting events is closing, as Chevron and other companies will likely end up with some sort of offshore agreement with Turkmenistan. The difficulty is in converting human rights ideals into practical smaller steps and benchmarks that could be universally accepted as progress. Certainly topping the list of such steps would be permission for both foreign and independent Turkmen reporters to do their jobs in Turkmenistan without harassment, and for the emergence of a free press, including professional business publications, that could report more impartially and critically on Turkmenistan's economy. As corrupt and closed as other Central Asian countries are, by contrast with Turkmenistan, each one has at least some brave corps of independent reporters and human rights monitors trying to get out the news.
Meanwhile, the Turkmen government has been ruthless about stamping out or heavily coopting even the most mild groups, such as those willing to work for environmental protection or public education about HIV/AIDS.
So the human rights community will likely be looking to Chevron to show leadership not just in ensuring rights for workers in its own projects, as important as that is, and not just in providing education for some professionals or other social projects, but raising with their Turkmen counterparts the critical issues of basic human rights without which any business will fail or become harmful to others.