A visit by a European parliamentary fact-finding delegation to Turkmenistan encountered problems in Ashgabat, including restricted access to a prison. But despite the mixed impressions of delegation members, the European Union is expected to take steps soon to strengthen its ties to Turkmenistan.
The delegation’s main aim during its late April trip to Ashgabat was to assess human rights conditions in Turkmenistan. According to delegation members, officials in Ashgabat hampered the ability the European members of parliament (MEPs) to interview Turkmen citizens, and to visit sites of interest, including the Ovan-Depe high security prison.
The MEP visit occurred amid an ongoing debate within the European Union over upgrading relations with Turkmenistan. Currently the EU has an Interim Trade Agreement (ITA) in place with Ashgabat. Human rights concerns have hindered the ratification of a more comprehensive Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) for over a decade. But the European parliament is expected to hold a ratification vote on the PCA in June. The general consensus appears to be that despite the less-than-glowing feedback from MEP members of the travel delegation, the PCA will receive parliamentary approval.
Ana Gomes, a Portuguese MEP who traveled to Ashgabat, said she thinks the ITA is a sufficient platform for EU-Turkmen relations at the moment. But other members of the delegation argue that ratification of the PCA would allow for even greater engagement with Turkmenistan, including on human rights issues, she said.
“There were different views [on the PCA] in our delegation. Several members think the PCA is not a priority on the basis that we have the ITA and it has a human rights clause. Others feel that the PCA would actually secure a more binding environment for us to get results in human rights terms. This is still something to be discussed, these differing views exist,” she said.
The ITA contains a provision making the pact conditional on Ashgabat’s compliance with internationally recognized human rights standards. Although Turkmenistan clearly doesn’t meet those standards, EU representatives have not given serious thought to invoking the ITA’s rights clause. Brussels, however, has given Ashgabat a verbal rap on occasion. On April 20, for example, the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee issued a statement that called Turkmenistan’s rights record “abysmal,” adding that EU engagement should be dependent on Ashgabat making “concrete progress” in promoting basic rights.
If past actions act as a guide to future behavior, however, rights activists believe EU complaints will stop there. Many familiar with the workings of the EU said they believe the PCA is a done deal. The EU’s energy agenda, which seeks to reduce a dependency on Russian energy imports, trumps rights concerns when it comes to dealing with the natural gas rich Central Asian state, they add.
Gomes maintained human rights issues will be at the top of the EU’s agenda and will frame EU-Turkmen relations in the future. “There’s now a different interest from the authorities [in Turkmenistan] on engagement with the EU. They accepted the need to discuss human rights. It was discussed in a way that was not exactly what we wanted, but that did not prevent us from raising questions and concerns especially about prisons,” she said.
The MEP delegation is due to present its formal findings to the Foreign Affairs Committee in late May.
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.