A Good Return on the EU’s Diplomatic Investment?

The following article was originally published in the European Voice on January 24, 2011.

The visit paid by the European Commission's president, José Manuel Barroso, and its energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger, to energy-rich Turkmenistan on January 15 is the clearest signal yet of the European Union's desire to buy gas from a closed country famed for the eccentricities of its leaders and its abysmal human rights record.

Recent trends suggest it is unlikely that Turkmenistan's consistent failure to meet its own international human rights obligations and uphold the rule of law featured in any substantive way (the European commissioners issued no statement after the visit).

Turkmenistan is thought to have the fourth-largest gas reserves in the world, representing 4 percent of the world's total reserves. It is seen by the EU as a key potential supplier, part of an energy-diversification strategy premised on the need to reduce the EU's reliance on Russia, the world's leading gas supplier. All of this has served to elevate the geostrategic importance of a country hitherto isolated from the world stage. It also raises important questions about what it means for the foreign policy of democratically elected governments or, as in the EU's case, institutions that represent democratic systems towards abusive regimes on which they depend for vital energy resources.

Energy security and human rights are not mutually exclusive goals, as EU officials seem to accept too readily. Buying gas from Turkmenistan, a country with an obscure and half-secret budget, where corruption and patronage is rife and where European executives are forced give gifts to the president in return for contracts, is akin to pouring money into a black hole. The absence of rules-based decision-making—an absence that is reflected in its human rights record—runs counter to EU interests in creating a sustainable, rules-based contractual arrangement.

The high-level visit to the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, was the latest round of a delicate diplomatic jenga game. As part of its diversification strategy, the EU has been busy supporting commercial projects to bring gas from the Caspian to the EU notably the Nabucco pipeline and engaged in a number of diplomatic initiatives seemingly intended to win favour with the Turkmen side. Such overtures include a Partnership and Co-operation Agreement which the European Parliament looks set to ratify this spring, despite no evidence that Turkmenistan has moved on the basic human rights criteria required to go ahead; while the EU-controlled European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has weakened its principled stance towards the country, citing “political reforms” as a justification.

Under the EU's Influence?

Yet, while the EU has been busy, it is unclear that Turkmenistan is fulfilling its side of the bargain. International conferences and visits by Western gas-industry executives elicit lukewarm responses at best, and Turkmenistan's stultified decision-making structures and its weak and fearful bureaucratic cadre (shuffling of key ministerial portfolios is frequent) do little to boost confidence that the EU will get a safe return on its diplomatic investment. It is clear that despite—or because of—increasing interest from China, Russia and the EU in Turkmenistan's resources, there have been virtually no improvements for the five million ordinary Turkmens. Many are blacklisted from leaving the country; prevented from working or, in the worse cases, in jail on trumped up charges in prisons that, as exiled activists documented in a report earlier this year, are mediaeval in character.

The latest news from the country makes typically grim reading: conscientious objectors have been imprisoned; a leading mobile-phone company blocked and—here, on European territory—a leading exiled activist threatened with assassination. In these circumstances, the best chance the people of Turkmenistan have is international pressure on the government to wrest reforms in exchange for greater engagement. Such pressure is not going to come from China and Russia but from actors, such as the EU, that take, as their founding principles, the universal norms to which Turkmenistan has signed up but ignores.

A Stronger Hand

Likewise, it is unclear that engagement without preconditions is the way forward to creating the leverage the EU desires. The case of Azerbaijan, now a broker in a potential Trans-Caspian Pipeline, is instructive: since cooperation on energy took precedence in relations between the EU and that country, the EU has lost, rather than gained, leverage. There, the European stake in oil and gas industry and the growing self-confidence of the government has left the regime impervious to EU demands on human rights. At the same time, the human rights situation in Azerbaijan has worsened considerably, culminating in openly fraudulent parliamentary elections last November. As in Turkmenistan, the presence of a large number of international buyers vying for its hydrocarbons serves to strengthen the regime at the expense of sustainable, equitable development and the rights of its citizens.

All of this means the EU needs to play a strong hand towards Turkmenistan, citing clear conditions linked to its offer. The EU should not hesitate to leverage its substantial market by linking its offer to buy Turkmen gas and upgrade its relations to clearly articulated expectations of that partner in the human rights and transparency fields. A presidential decision to allow international monitors to visit prisons would be a good start; as would enabling people to assemble and associate to civic organizations. Abolishing the unofficial blacklists and bans on citizens leaving the country and initiating a review of political prisoners detained by the former president would also be a significant, though relatively painless step for Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, one that would signal that Turkmenistan is on the way to becoming a worthy partner for the EU. By making such expectations clear from the outset, the EU would boost its negotiating hand down the line when the payments start coming into Turkmen coffers.

At stake is more than a bilateral relationship with Turkmenistan: the EU risks undermining its soft power and mortgaging its freedom to act decisively in the future on core political concerns by hinging its foreign policy solely to energy needs. The fickle global gas market shows how dangerously short-termist and limiting energy realpolitik can be. Meanwhile, governments in the region are watching to see how low the EU will be willing to let the bar slip in order to feed its energy addiction. Without a strong, consistent and credible longer-term EU strategy on the difficult questions towards countries such as Turkmenistan, the EU risks ending up looking, at best, no better than the rest and, at worst, guilty of hypocrisy in pursuit of short-term gains.

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