January 26, 2007

Are We Missing An Opportunity In Turkmenistan?

When Turkmenistan's cult dictator Saparmurat Niyazov died last year, hope for reform in the Central Asian republic rose in the West, as well as the potential for an opening towards loosening Vladimir Putin's grip on the region's energy resources. Simon Tisdall reports for the Guardian that both hopes may be dashed if the West does not take more aggressive action to promote democracy:

Turkmenistan has some of the world's biggest natural gas fields, producing the equivalent of 11% of total EU consumption annually. But its pipeline export routes remain firmly under Russian control, a legacy of the Soviet era. Last September Moscow's state energy giant Gazprom won access to the large Yolotan field and an option on any surpluses until 2009. The deal marked the end of President Saparmurat Niyazov's bid to weaken Russia's grip. And in any case, in December Niyazov, known as Turkmenbashi the Great, died after 21 years running one of the world's most oppressive dictatorships.

Apparently oblivious to concerns about democratic transition, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, was quick to cement ties with Mr Berdymukhamedov, a Niyazov favourite, who was named interim president. The two men exchanged assurances about a continuing, close energy relationship.

Washington has not been totally inactive, sending two mid-level envoys to Ashgabat. But having tolerated Niyazov's authoritarian personality cult and courted his energy favours, its public statements about the succession have been cautious. The European Commission declared this month that the EU should expand its strategic stake in central Asia, human rights notwithstanding. But exiled Turkmen opposition leaders say that by turning a blind eye to a looming electoral travesty, western countries are passing up "a historic second chance" to advance democratic reform and reverse Moscow's energy dominance to their own advantage.

Berdymukhamedov -- a name I will soon grow tired of typing -- appears poised to seize the mantle left by Niyazov and continue the oppressive, autocratic rule of the man who called himself the Father of All Turkmen. Tisdall's comment regarding Putin's oblivious outreach either qualifies as naiveté or, more likely, typically dry British humor. Putin has never met an oil-rich tyrant he hasn't loved, and having Berdymukhamedov on his side as opposed to the more prickly Niyazov will no doubt delight him.

Tisdall notes that the US has so far taken the same position for Turkmenistan as we did for Azerbaijan last year, which is to subsume the push for democracy in favor of energy and political concerns. Turkmen opposition leaders point out the benefits of having Turkmenistan as a solid ally and a functioning democracy. They border both Iran and Afghanistan, and transforming Niyazov's cultish police state into a self-governing and stable nation would put pressure on both to match its progress. Especially when the US has finally started setting a tougher stance towards Iran, the fate of Turkmenistan's governance outweighs its potential benefits as an oil supplier, at least for the moment.

We need to start insisting on a clean and democratic process for the replacement of Niyazov, and it should be a higher priority that it appears to be at the moment. We need high-level American officials talking about Turkmenistan and our support for those Turkmen who want to bring democracy to their nation. If we don't encourage the democracy activists now, we won't get another chance for years, perhaps decades, and that will do us little good in the war on terror and its sponsors.


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