A European Parliamentary delegation is due to arrive April 28 in Turkmenistan on a human rights fact-finding mission. The visit appears to be a prelude to a European Union upgrade of its economic ties with Ashgabat.
Currently, the EU has an Interim Trade Agreement (ITA) in place with Turkmenistan. In addition, a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), which allows for expanded trade relations, awaits ratification. The PCA was signed way back in 1998, but has never been ratified due largely to concerns over Turkmenistan’s human rights record. Ashgabat is consistently ranked by watchdog groups as one of the world’s most repressive states. The findings of the European delegation visit, however, could clear the way for PCA ratification as early as June.
Given Turkmenistan’s abundance of natural resources, combined with the European Union’s strong desire to lessen its energy dependence on Russia, there would appear to be a strong incentive for European officials to overlook Ashgabat’s rights shortcomings for the sake of closer economic relations.
Heidi Hautala, a Finnish Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights, described the parliamentary delegation visit as a gauge of the EU’s commitment to democratization. She went on to explain that PCA ratification with Turkmenistan is a “test-case of how the European Parliament can give serious scrutiny” to an international agreement, and added that “it creates a precedent for how Parliament will monitor future Partnership and Cooperation Agreements.”
No matter what the visiting delegation finds, some rights experts believe PCA ratification is inevitable. The European Council (EC) maintains a ratified PCA is the only way forward, despite repeated testimony from human rights groups and activists documenting systematic abuses in Turkmenistan. The EC argues that ratification will encourage the Turkmen government to improve its rights record.
“EU engagement with Turkmenistan, including human rights, democratization and the rule of law, will be further enhanced once the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) comes into force,” said an EC statement distributed April 18. “In this respect, the PCA will not only provide a firm legal basis for our relations and for bilateral dialogue, but it will also enshrine human rights as an essential element of our bilateral relations - as is the case for other third countries with which we have concluded similar agreements, including all other Central Asian countries.”
Similar arguments were heard during the debate over whether Kazakhstan should be awarded the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010. Ultimately, Astana secured the OSCE chairmanship, but rights activists maintain that Kazakhstani officials did not keep their reform promises. Officials in Astana, meanwhile, insist that they honored all pledges to improve the country’s human rights legal framework.
The EU-Turkmen ITA, which was approved by the European Parliament in 2009, calls on the Turkmen government to uphold fundamental human rights. In a resolution passed in April of 2009, the European Parliament (EP) noted that the ITA is not a “blank check.” It also called for “strict monitoring and regular reviews of developments in key areas in Turkmenistan and, if appropriate, for a suspension of the agreement, if there is evidence that the conditions are not being met.”
But two years later, monitoring mechanisms remain undeveloped. Speaking on April 20, Hautala, the Finnish MEP, accused the EU External Action Service of being reluctant to establish a monitoring mechanism for Turkmenistan because it might “distort the balance of the EU institutions.”
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.