Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and German Foreign Minister Guido Westervelle, Ashgabat, November 2011
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle travelled to Ashgabat last week to attend the Oil and Gas Turkmenistan conference in a major show of support for cooperation with Turkmenistan from a leading economic power in the European Union.
Germany has long been a visible partner of Turkmenistan in energy, science and education projects. RWE, Germany's gas giant, is leader of the Nabucco consortium and has been drilling offshore in the Caspian Sea for years. German doctors stood at the elbow of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, trained as a dentist, when he performed surgery on a patient at a German-supported medical clinic in Ashgabat.
Germany's largest daily Suddeutsche Zeitungwas less impressed, calling Westerwelle's visit a "trip to another galaxy," and describing the ostentatious marble architecture in Ashgabat as "a gleaming mixture of Stalin and kitsch," remarking that President Berdymukhamedov had "turned gas into reinforced concrete."
Interestingly, unlike US leaders, who have tended to avoid public mention of human rights problems or leave them to lower-level officials, the German foreign minister spoke forthrightly after his meeting with Berdymukhamedov, "“I have also addressed the necessity of plurality in civil society, the necessity of protecting human and civil rights during this visit." The state media did not cover his remarks.
Westerwelle took part in a round table discussion on human rights at the Presidential Institute for Democracy and Human Rights about "how Germany can foster the rule of law and human rights protection in Turkmenistan," the Federal Foreign Office website reported.
The site added that there is only one party (the Democratic Party) in Turkmenistan and the human rights situation is "unsatisfactory," although "there have been improvements" since Berdymukhamedov took office -- such as a willingness to work more closely with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. That was perplexing as such work in fact largely amounts to having more seminars with the ever-ready Presidential Institute for Democracy and Human Rights.
Back in February 2010, after a visit to Paris to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Berdymukhamedov vowed to permit a second party, suggesting that it focus on agriculture. Nothing more has been heard since then, and no new law on parties has been passed that would legalize even the ill-named Democratic Party.
Westerwelle follows a long line of "pilgrims" who have paid visits to the Turkmen tyrant recently including Austrian President Heinz Fischer and Hungarian President Pal Schmitt, said Suddeutsche Zeitung.
"They dream about a gas pipeline named Nabucco, which pumps gas from Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Iraq to Austria and so to the whole EU – and so leaving Russia and Iran outside. Turkmenistan has promised nothing so far, but supposedly Berdymukhamedov has uttered the word 'Nabucco' for the first time in public just recently," said the German daily.
Westerwelle visited the oil and gas expo, decorated with portraits of Berdymukhamedov. At a stand sponsored by the German company Sick-Maihack, he said that Germany could offer technology such as precision gas meters, to measure exactly what gas is delivered. "Yet nothing is delivered, at least, no Turkmen gas to Western Europe," complained Suddeutsche Zeitung. As for the round table about human rights, it took place with the presidential institute -- and once again the president's portrait was hanging on the wall, said the daily.
The German Europe Online Magazine commented that there are portraits of Berdymukhamedov everywhere, and he has recently declared himself "Hero of Turkmenistan" and "the protector" -- and will be elected president again in February.
In addition to the prospect for the EU's gas deal and German business, Westerwelle also discussed preparations for the forthcoming meeting in Bonn about Afghanistan, regarding the role of Kabul's neighbors in contributing to stability and economic development.
Reporters Without Borders and the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation For Human Rights sent a joint letter to Westerwelle about the state of freedom of expression, urging the release from prison of Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khadjiyev. They are serving jail sentences of six and seven years respectively for helping French television to make a documentary about Turkmenistan in 2006.