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‘Hostages to the Gas’: A Glimpse of Life inside Turkmenistan

‘Hostages to the Gas’: A Glimpse of Life inside Turkmenistan
26th June 2009 ICSR Team
In FREErad!cals

The excellent neweurasia website recently directed readers to a rare look at life inside Turkmenistan: a short video by Simon Ostrovsky, a freelance journalist working for the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

The video details the ongoing repression in the country under President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who succeeded the famous ‘Turkmenbashi’ (Saparmurad Niazov) shortly after his death in December 2006.

Hundreds of political prisoners lie in jails beyond the reach of international monitors; there is no press freedom or unauthorised political activity; movement within and outside the country is severely restricted.

Turkmenistan regularly shows up on ‘worst’ lists, including the Corruption Perceptions Index, the Freedom in the World Report , and most recently the ‘Worst Places to be a Blogger‘ roll call . It also lies across a major drug trafficking route from Afghanistan, and reports indicate staggering numbers of drug addicts are undocumented within the country.

One thing has changed somewhat under Berdymukhamedov: he has proven more open to foreign investment in Turkmenistan’s vast natural gas reserves. But interviews in the video indicate that this has had an unfortunate effect on the country’s small and beleaguered activist movement:

“Unfortunately, there is this illusion that everything is just fine here, and as a result international organisations and representatives of other countries only see what they want to: the superficial changes that are taking place. But they don’t see that very little is changing in reality. We are hostages to the gas; it is sacred. Economic interests are deemed more important than people’s basic rights.”

Another activist states:

“We used to get invited to the American Embassy and European embassies. But now they pretend like we don’t exist. They know they won’t get gas contracts if they associate with us.”

It is a common complaint in Central Asia: repressive and corrupt regimes escape without serious Western condemnation because of economic or strategic considerations. In the Caspian region there is oil and gas to consider; farther east, one must think of supply routes to Afghanistan.

Central Asian regimes have also exploited politically the potential for terrorism and extremism in the region, and more or less skilfully played on Western concerns about Russian or Chinese dominance in the area.

There is a dynamic similar to that in other parts of the world: the sense that as imperfect as these regimes may be, turning around and openly criticising them might jeopardise Western interests while not actually improving conditions within the countries. (In Central Asia we have the example of Uzbekistan evicting the US from the K2 base after American criticism of the Andijan massacre.)

As we have seen, however, Western support for non-democratic regimes may contribute to the appeal of radical alternative social and religious movements (at the very least, it helps sharpen their rhetoric of exclusivity).

It’s important to remember the range of political and economic conditions in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan, for example, has a burgeoning civil society that Turkmen and Uzbeks could only dream of. Parts of Kazakhstan are developed to an extent unthinkable in most of Tajikistan. But each state does suffer from autocratic and dysfunctional leadership, and there is not much cause for optimism that things will change in the near future.

In Turkmenistan, at least, there is also little chance that opposition activists will be able to mobilise and have any significant impact on conditions within the country: the regime’s level of control is simply too high. Factors that facilitate radicalisation and violence usually find unfertile soil in such longstanding authoritarian regimes.

In this sense, we may not visit Turkmenistan that often within this blog, but it is important not to forget the extreme hardships its citizens suffer, and keep an eye out for any possible changes in the current situation.

An intriguing gallery of photos of Turkmenistan can be found here.

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