The European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee has given initial approval for the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Turkmenistan, a move that is designed to help Europe achieve energy security but that has drawn fire from human rights groups.
The PCA was originally signed in 1998, but was then postponed due to the uncertain political situation and human rights concerns, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported. Similar PCAs have been signed between the EU and all the countries that emerged from the Soviet Union, and are supposed to foster economic cooperation and development as well as support democracy and rights.
After President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov came to power in 2007 promising reforms, the EU decided to revive the PCA process, driven by increasing need to secure hydrocarbons and reduce dependency on Russia, and also buoyed with hope that the situation in Turkmenistan might improve. While some modest restoration of the education and health systems have occurred under Berdymukhamedov following the destructive policies of past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, no substantive changes have been made to encourage civil society. Dissent of any kind is harshly discouraged, political prisoners are kept incommunicado in awful conditions, and a blacklist of “unreliables” is maintained for entry and exit from the country. Internet cafes are costly and web sites are blocked, and on a whim, the government has just cut off the mobile service of 2.4 million customers.
Last year, the PCA debate was postponed as some members of the European Parliament advocated inserting a monitoring clause and a trigger to suspend the agreement if human rights conditions worsened. Meanwhile, no energy deal was made by the EU and Turkmenistan anyway, so that there wasn't any actual reason to forsake principles.
Since then, while an agreement on Nabucco still seems far away, European leaders nevertheless believe that collaboration with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan is vital to any energy strategy. A vote will take place on the PCA in May in plenary session after a parliamentary delegation to Turkmenistan; ratifications of the PCA are also still pending in the French and British parliaments. Despite a high-profile trip earlier this month from European Commission President José Manual Barroso, Ashgabat has still not made an explicit commitment to Nabucco. Even so, the EU seems determined to establish rapprochement with Central Asia, without which officials believe no long-term prospects for security are possible.
International and national non-governmental organizations have protested the Nabucco project, not only on human rights grounds but on the fundamental issues of transparency and accountability. On January 20, a group of 37 civil society groups, both global and regional, including Crude Accountability, International Social-Ecological Union and others, TEXT">sent an open letter to the International Finance Corporation (IFC) which is set to invest 800 million euro in the Nabucco project. The total cost of Nabucco is estimated at 9-10 billion euro or $11.8-13.1 billion. The NGOs cited past pipeline projects funded by the IFC such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that led to problems of corruption and environmental damage.
The activists characterized the Nabucco project, to span 3,500 kilometers, as "unsustainable" and called for a review that would involve both supply and transit countries and take into account civil society concerns. The NGOs pointed out that the legal status of the Caspian Sea is still unresolved, and consent from Iran and Russia to construct the Trans-Caspian pipeline under the sea will be difficult to obtain. There is the danger of increased militarization of the Caspian, and of earthquakes and destruction of natural habitats if the seabed is disturbed.
Nowhere has the grave risk of doing business in Turkmenistan been more evident in recent weeks than with the suspension of Russia’s MTS mobile phone company. While the five-year agreement with the Turkmen government had expired, the expectation was that it would be renewed in a timely and business-like manner. The Turkmen government already received 20 percent of the profits, yet apparently Ashgabat is demanding more benefits – possibly even more than 50 percent ownership. While at first customers patiently waited 30 days until January 21 when they thought service would be restored, now they are trying to transfer to the one state provider, Altyn Asyr, which has proved unable to cope with the influx. The flexibility in communications, the boon to business and travel, and the easy access to the Internet that more than half the population enjoyed has now been jeopardized. Apparently, the government is now contemplating creating another cell provider, to be named Galkynysh (Revival), on the basis of infrastructure seized from MTS. The Russian company is suing in international arbitration court and also seeking justice through other avenues; the Turkmen Communications Ministry has been unmoved.
The MTS debacle does open up the question of how the already not so newly-independent states of the former Soviet Union can establish national business outside of Russian hegemony. It’s a tale that parallels the Nabucco story, as increasingly, the need to have Russia’s consent to the Trans-Caspian pipeline is being invoked, and it seems that Turkmenistan’s effort to “diversify” is subject to a Russian veto. In the same way, the Turkmen government’s arbitrariness on MTS vividly illustrates the veto Ashgabat has on Russian investment – and by implication, any foreign involvement.
The Turkmen and Uzbek presidents spoke on the phone January 18, ostensibly about improving relations, yet events on the ground aren’t in sync with these declared intentions. In fact, authorities have tightened up the regulations for border-crossings between the two countries, now requiring people who wish to make a visit to relatives from Lebap and Dashoguz regions in Turkmenistan to Bukhara and Khorezm regions in Uzbekistan to produce a copy of their relatives’ passport. Trade has not improved between the two countries, reports News Briefing Central Asia, and Turkmenistan seems to be stalling, not wishing to move beyond platitudes about cultural and historical bonds.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Turkmenistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Sifting the Karakum blog. To subscribe to the weekly email with a digest of international and regional press, write firstname.lastname@example.org