This report has shown Turkmenistan to be a country teetering on the edge of catastrophe. An obsession with appearance that speaks to a need for public display and regimented control, masking and managing a regime under enormous pressure as years of economic turmoil place unprecedented strain on a rigid but potentially brittle political structure. Hunger and hyper-inflation are being managed by further increasing the scale of human rights abuse and the level of intrusion into people’s lives.
Investors may be initially attracted to Turkmenistan due to its enormous gas wealth but as the EBRD, the UK Department of International Trade and many others have noted it has huge structural challenges. It is to some extent a ‘Potemkin economy’, with marble facades, respectable GDP figures and a tightly regulated state shops, masking a huge and chaotic black market economy. Potential investors face a range of risks including: the political whims of the President, leading to arbitrary behaviour by a sclerotic bureaucracy whose rotating cast of officials live in fear of displeasing the leader; a high risk of non-payment for goods or services rendered; endemic corruption; insecurity of legal title or contracts; the lack of rule of law and independent judiciary; and reputational risks from being associated with severe human rights abuses and the use of forced labour. At the very least this should give investors cause to pause and, even if they are unwilling to rethink their investment, it should be seen as a necessity to carry out thorough due diligence into any local partners in Turkmenistan to reduce exposure to expropriation and corruption risks. While the international community itself has been slow to implement necessary transparency initiatives, such as the EU’s Fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive or the UK’s Beneficial Ownership Register, if Turkmenistan is serious about wanting to attract international investment it should take steps to create clarity about the ownership of its domestic firms to improve the investment environment. In the absence of effective domestic remedies Turkmenistan will need to demonstrate it is complying with the provisions of the bilateral and international investment treaties it is a signatory to.
Turkmenistan’s relative isolation and economic reliance on China and Russia have led some to despair over the lack of influence and leverage that can be brought to bear with the regime to improve the human rights situation. While this position clearly sets some limits on the scope of international influence it must not be a reason not to try to achieve change, not least given that the current economic turmoil means that Turkmenistan is looking for international sources of revenue more than ever before, creating new opportunities for engagement on a ‘more for more’ and ‘less for less’ basis. As a number of civil society organisations have argued the new European Parliament human rights benchmarks provide a helpful basis on which to measure and test engagement with Turkmenistan. As this research has set out Turkmenistan’s human rights challenges are multitude but there are clear areas to focus on, including forced labour, ‘disappeared’ activists in the prison system, prison conditions in general and restrictions on independent journalists and human rights activists. Turkmenistan needs to do more to facilitate access by UN Special Rapporteurs and other UN mechanisms, the most recent of which was in 2009, and to enable representatives of international NGOs to obtain visas to visit the country. It needs to do more to show that it is complying with its UN treaty obligations on human rights.
International engagement with Turkmenistan’s carefully curated NGOs, education and health institutions can have a place but it must not be misconstrued or spun as an example of increased openness or progress. It is a transaction that may help provide a tangible benefit to a group of people in Turkmenistan but it is unlikely to be a tool to diffuse democratic values or encourage systemic reform. There remains a case, except in areas that deliver directly to the welfare of the people of Turkmenistan, for reconsidering projects pending (or making them conditional on) improvements in human rights and/or refocusing funding to other countries in the wider region that are making progress. The international community should avoid engagement for engagement’s sake as while contact can make minor differences to individual behaviour around the margins it can seek to normalise authoritarian practice rather than achieving long-term systemic change. To use an analogy, even though glaciers can bring down mountains that doesn’t mean that they are the most efficient means of doing so or that they are the most effective use of water. So without tangible improvements in current behaviour by the government, the international community should re-evaluate its existing interactions with Turkmenistan.
For example the UK needs to consider the appropriateness of its most high profile engagements with one of the most authoritarian regimes on earth being overwhelmingly trade focused. It should look again at the suitability of designating Turkmenistan one of the 56 countries to which it has a formal trade envoy. It could examine whether the Turkmenistan-UK Trade & Industry Council (TUKTIC) should still be a country priority given both the human rights and economic situation in the country, the risks posed to investors and the limits such a business first approach creates for the UK’s ability to push for real reforms alongside European and other international colleagues.
In part, beyond the remit of this publication, there is a strong case that the EBRD should refocus its lending to the countries in the region that are at least trying to abide by the criteria set out in Article 1 of the bank’s founding charter, which calls on it to only work with ‘Central and Eastern European countries committed to and applying the principles of multiparty democracy, pluralism and market economics’. If this is to mean anything there has to be a clear demonstration of the difference between how Turkmenistan is treated and those who are at least taking some steps towards democracy. The current revision of the EBRD’s country strategy provides an opportunity to achieve this differentiation. As with other organisations the EBRD should apply the EU Parliament benchmarks to its approach to engagement with Turkmenistan. It should resist plans to expand its lending to certain areas of the public sector, given the state of repression and the ubiquity of forced labour amongst public sector and state enterprise workers.
The forced labour situation in the cotton sector needs sustained pressure and independent monitoring. If a robust mandate can be agreed between the ILO and Turkmenistan then the ILO establishing a presence on the ground in Turkmenistan should be supported in order to map and monitor the scale of forced labour and to take action to prevent it. Establishing a strongly mandated ILO presence should be one of the primary requirements for international community engagement with Turkmenistan.
One area for potential additional engagement with Turkmenistan that should not undermine the objectives set out above would be in the provision of or access to food, in the relatively unlikely scenario that the regime was able to admit that there was a problem. There may be scope for additional support by the UN’s World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization, as well as other international assistance, to prevent the spread of hunger and malnutrition in the country.
While the range of potential issues to address is vast there are a number of specific recommendations that can be made to assist in urgently improving the situation in Turkmenistan.
Recommendations to the Government of Turkmenistan:
- Notify all families about the condition of their imprisoned loved ones and allow visitor access
- Free political prisoners and jailed journalists
- Improve prison conditions and end the use of torture in the detention system
- End forced labour in the cotton harvest and allow independent monitoring
- Allow visa access by UN Special Rapporteurs and other UN mandate holders, as well as representatives of international NGOs
- Take steps to improve transparency around company ownership
- Enhance judicial independence in the criminal and commercial sector, while honouring its international treaty obligations
Recommendations to the international community:
- Ensure the EU adopts and applies the European Parliament human rights benchmarks for Turkmenistan
- Require the EBRD’s lending to Turkmenistan to reflect the need to improve human rights and avoid expansion to the public sector in the absence of genuine reforms
- Push for an ILO presence in Turkmenistan with a strong mandate to tackle forced labour
- Reconsider international trade promotion efforts to Turkmenistan, such as the UK’s TUKTIC trade missions
- Support access to asylum and other forms of exile for activists and their families fleeing persecution by Turkmenistan’s regime
Photo by Peretz Partensky, published under Creative Commons with no changes made.
 IPHR, The EU adopts important benchmarks, as repression continues in Turkmenistan, May 2019, https://www.iphronline.org/the-eu-adopts-important-benchmarks-as-repression-continues-in-turkmenistan.html. and the European Parliament resolution of 12 March 2019 on the draft Council and Commission decision on the conclusion by the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement establishing a Partnership between the European Communities and their Member States, of the one part, and Turkmenistan, of the other part (12183/1/2011 – C8-0059/2015 – 1998/0031R(NLE)), http://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-8-2019-0146_EN.html?redirect
 UN Human Rights, Turkmenistan, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/ENACARegion/Pages/TMIndex.aspx; It has ratified 13 UN treaties and optional protocols as set out here at the UN Treaty Database https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/TreatyBodyExternal/Treaty.aspx?CountryID=180&Lang=EN