Last week Turkmenistan focused on deepening its relations with its close international partners – Turkey, China, and Russia. On August 9, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov made his second visit to Turkey in 2012 and met with Turkish President Abdullah Gul to discuss transport infrastructure and modernizing and equipping seaports, among other trade-related issues. Gul expressed interest on behalf of major Turkish businesses to expand cooperation with Turkmenistan, noting the “complete understanding between the parties in many important questions of trade and economic ties and international relationships in general.” In Ashgabat, Berdymukhamedov welcomed the head of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), Ma Xingrui, to discuss cooperation in space exploration. Turkmenistan's Deputy Prime Minister in charge of cultural affairs, Biagul Nurmyradova, met with Vice Chair of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference’s National Committee, Luo Fuhe, in Beijing. As reported by the Russian-language state newspaper Neitralniy Turkmenistan, Berdymukhamedov, “stressed the constructive international dialogue, reaffirming Turkmenistan's continued commitment to friendly relations and full-scale cooperation with the Russian Federation,” following the Moscow meeting of the Turkmen-Russian intergovernmental commission, last month, which focused on economic cooperation.
Despite strong relations with such trade partners which rarely criticize the country for its human rights or governance record, it seems that Turkmenistan is concerned with burnishing its image before those western partners who do. Last April, the Turkmen government admitted a Red Cross delegation to one youth detention facility in what seemed to be an effort to open up its prison system to greater, albeit controlled external scrutiny. Now, Turkmenistan’s authorities are building a model prison for women. "It seems the prison will become a showcase for the Turkmen penal system – somewhere international inspections could be allowed to take place," leader of the Netherlands-based Turkmenistan Civil Democratic Union, Vyacheslav Mamedov said. Turkmen exile groups (such as Turkmenistan’s Independent Lawyers Association and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights) have documented systematic abuse in the prison system in the Turkmenistan Prison Report. The country’s prison population is extremely high, accounting for 550 people per 100,000 of the general population, twice as many as neighboring Kyrgyzstan, and despite quarterly amnesties – including one last week in which 1327 prisoners were released in honor of the sacred Gadyr Gijesi (Night of Omnipotence).
Another issue tarnishing the country’s reputation, a problem endemic to the Central Asian region, and largely a result of growing poverty and economic inequality in its countries is the issue of child labor. A recent report of the Tajik service of Radio Liberty / Radio Freedom, “Ozodi,” shows the pervasiveness of child labor in Turkmenistan despite official prohibitions against it. Children must work to help support their families and to be able to afford clothes and books for school. They can be found selling food on the streets and in the markets, picking cotton, and even working construction jobs. The country’s social safety net, long broken, doesn’t provide support to low-income families, nor do its child protection services adequately address child labor issues.
Berdymukhamedov’s beloved pet project, the Avaza tourist resort, has not yet become the world famous resort that he had planned. Apart from the obvious reasons, such as Turkmenistan’s failure to become a tourist destination, not to mention the difficulty of getting a visa to enter the country, Avaza’s hotels are overpriced, customer service reportedly leaves much to be desired, and there are reports that holiday-makers risk the possibility of getting kicked out of their hotels at any time at the whim of visiting government officials, and that the resort’s beaches are dirty, lacking toilets, and hardly have any lifeguards on duty. Furthermore, for the Turkmen traveler, domestic flights are hard to come by, with the Turkmen State Airlines without money to pay staff and its fleet lying in disrepair. This is in spite of a recent presidential order to improve the quality of the state airlines and a presidential reprimand and warning last month to the Head of “Turkmen Airlines” to bring the service into shape.