US Experts Ponder Possibilities for Improved US-Turkmen Relations

January 17, 2007
Joshua Kucera

Originally published by EurasiaNet.org

The promise of reform by Turkmenistan’s new president has provided the United States with a chance to revive moribund ties with the energy rich Central Asian nation, analysts believe.

When Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov died in December, ties with the US were tenuous at best. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. For example, in the last fiscal year, the United States gave Turkmenistan just over $17 million in aid — a reflection of “the highly centralized and authoritarian rule of President Niyazov,” according to the State Department. The Turkmen total was a fraction of what other Central Asian states received over the same period.

But the new interim president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, created a minor sensation in early January when he promise to pursue educational reforms and to reopen the country to outside sources of information. For example, he indicated that Turkmenistani students would once again receive the state’s support to pursue higher educational opportunities abroad.

Many analysts view Berdymukhammedov’s promises with caution. At the same time, they believe the United States should do everything it can to encourage the new Turkmen leader to follow through on his liberalizing impulse. The US Agency for International Development could act as the leading agent for improved US-Turkmenistan relations, some observers believe.

“The acting president’s reformist rhetoric has captured the imagination of the international community and sown seeds of hope that genuine reform will follow,” said Erika Dailey, who heads the Turkmenistan Project at the New York-based Open Society Institute. “Assessments of the new regime should be based on deeds, not words — objective monitoring, not wishful thinking. Bear in mind that Niyazov was also a rhetorical reformer, constantly railing against corruption and government incompetence. Only time will tell whether the promised reforms will materialize.” [EurasiaNet also operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute].

In the event Berdymukhammedov is serious about reforms, Washington’s first priority “should be one they’ve already articulated, and that’s education and health — that’s a big opening for us, and I think that should probably lead the train, because our relations have been so poor this would be a good way to rebuild trust on both sides,” said S. Frederick Starr, Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

However, the United States needs to send officials to Turkmenistan to assess Berdymukhammedov’s true intentions, and the officials need to be of sufficiently high rank to suit Turkmenistan, which places a high value on protocol, noted Sean Roberts, Central Asian Affairs Fellow at Georgetown University. “What would be very astute of the US government to do would be to send somebody out who can spend some quality time with Berdymukhammedov and really find out what his plans are,” Roberts said.

“The question for the United States now is, do we go back and say, ‘OK, new era, things have changed, let’s go back to square one and we’re willing to help you with all these reforms.’ And I think that if there is real political will, it’s probably important to do so, but the most important thing right now is to have feelers out and really encourage this reform and try to gauge whether there is real political will for the reform,” he said.

However, there are limits to the reforms proposed by Berdymukhammedov. He pointedly did not say anything about opening up the political system, allowing independent media or releasing political prisoners. Analysts interviewed by EurasiaNet said Washington should not expect miracles on those fronts, but US officials nevertheless need to consistently apply pressure on Ashgabat to show progress in these areas.

“I understand that you can’t close doors to this [current ruling] group because it’s likely that they’ll continue to be in power, and it’s a question of how you get them to change their policies and get them to do things in the US interest,” said Martha Brill Olcott, senior associate with the Russian & Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “So you don’t want to alienate them, but at the same time the United States could be sending public signals that they would like any government elected to address the kind of international standards where Niyazov was found wanting.”

Thus far, the US government’s public response to Niyazov’s death and Turkmenistan’s political transition has been muted. Richard Boucher, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, led a group of US officials to attend Niyazov’s funeral, a delegation that Starr praised for being at “just the right level.” [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The US State Department has made mild statements calling for the opening of the political process. “Education, access to information, economic opportunity, entrepreneurship, these are things that are fundamental to creating a more open society,” Boucher said in an interview with Voice of America.

US Representative Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican who closely follows Central Asian issues, has adopted a more forceful stance. He sent a strongly worded letter to Berdymukhammedov, castigating the new president for the undemocratic nature of the transition. Smith also called for the release of several political prisoners: Nurberdy Nurmammedov, Sapardurdy Khajiev, Annakurba Amanklychev, Mukhametkuli Aimuradov, Geldy Kiarisov, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, and Andrey Zatoka.

“During President Niyazov’s era, the US Congress and Turkmenistan had a troubled relationship. Members of Congress and the international community will therefore watch closely the conduct of your interim government over the next weeks. I respectfully urge you to begin a new chapter for Turkmenistan and ensure that the upcoming election [February 11] meets all of Turkmenistan’s international commitments,” Smith wrote.

The transition gives the United States a chance to correct policy errors, such as giving Niyazov somewhat of a free pass on his poor human rights record, Olcott said. “Turkmenistan is a place for the United States to show it doesn’t have a double standard,” she said. “Under Niyazov we didn’t apply the same pressures on human rights that we were applying at the same time on the Uzbeks and this is not something that was lost on the Uzbeks.”

Olcott said it will be important for US officials to maintain contacts with exiled Turkmen opposition leaders, and let the new government in Ashgabat know that Washington will stress the need for political pluralism, she said. “The United States has to send signals to the opposition that [Washington] will strive to have the playing field in Turkmenistan opened,” she said.

It is too early now to be talking up issues like oil and gas, but those issues will soon be on the table, Olcott said. “It’s really early for those things … but I’m not sure they won’t start pretty soon. But right now, these guys [in Turkmenistan] are trying to figure out more basic questions,” she said.

Roberts said that Turkmenistan itself may be trying to use the reform agenda to increase its cooperation with the West on energy issues. “That’s one of the reasons Berdymukhammedov might be putting out feelers to the West, he really has something to gain by establishing engagement from the US and Europe, because if a new Turkmen government is too reliant on Russia, obviously it’s not going to be good for the development of the oil and gas sector and the Turkmen economy,” he said.

Starr said that while the reform issues have provided an opening for the US, soon the hard and soft issues should start to move in parallel. “We’re talking about two countries that have had only superficial interactions over the past few years having to reopen contact, we have to get to know the new people, they have to get to know us, build some kind of trust, and on that basis I think we can address the other matters which are of concern to us, but I don’t think you can come in pounding the table either over democratization or pipelines. If you do, you’re going to get predictable results,” he said.

Meanwhile, Dailey cautioned that all the talk about new openings may be premature. “Since Berdymukhammedov came to power, instances of harassment of civil society — such as arrests, abductions, heightened surveillance, and interrogations — have in fact increased. Everyone hopes that the change in leadership will result in meaningful, sustainable reform in Turkmenistan,” she said. “Berdymukhammedov’s record so far suggests that in the months ahead, with the possible exception of reform in agriculture and some social programs, we are likely to see a continuation of Niyazov’s style of governance, just with better ‘PR.’”

Editor’s Note: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.