When Annamamedov Matiev’s eye infection threatened blindness, he and his wife, both journalists from Turkmenistan, decided to bypass the country’s notoriously corrupt health care system. They bought plane tickets and booked an appointment to see a specialist in the Netherlands.
At Ashgabat airport, authorities refused to allow them to board their plane on account of Elena Matieva’s activities as a journalist. A former reporter for Radio Free Europe, she had written critical articles and once attended a seminar in Europe. Since then she and her husband have been persecuted by the authorities: forced out of jobs; spied on and now, prevented from traveling.
The Matievs' story is sadly familiar. Thousands of Turkmen citizens are thought to be on an unofficial blacklist barring them from exiting their own country, even for medical care, to study or to visit family.
Turkmenistan, a country known mainly for its large gas reserves and the eccentricities of its former leader, languishes at the lower end of the league tables on press freedom, democracy and transparency, keeping company with the likes of Burma, Uzbekistan, and North Korea. It stands out among its Central Asian peers for its use of Soviet-style collective punishment, which persecutes relatives and acquaintances for the "crimes" of fathers, sisters, uncles, or clan members. Under its current president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Turkmenistan remains subject to one-man rule: ministers are hired and fired at the will; dissidents are persecuted and forced to renounce citizenship; thousands languish in jails where TB is said to be rife. Few, if any, international organizations are permitted access to the country to monitor abuses.
Turkmenistan—sitting on the world’s fifth largest gas reserves—is nevertheless a country with which the European Union has decided it can do business. Discussions have been opened about gas pipelines and a Memorandum of Understanding on energy cooperation signed. EU political leaders have leant their weight to commercial ventures such as the fabled, and troubled, Nabucco gas project. Successive EU dignitaries have visited Ashgabat to court the leadership, including Commissioner Oettinger in April 2010. This autumn the European Parliament will consider whether to give the green light to a comprehensive agreement which will normalize relations with Turkmenistan.
As part of this rapprochement, EU officials parrot government press releases highlighting "progress" in education, the holding of the first parliamentary elections, the opening of a handful of Internet cafes, the decision to agree to a human rights dialogue with the EU and to invite a Special Rapporteur, the release of the occasional human rights defender.
The untold story is that the Internet cafes remain expensive and highly controlled; that the parliamentary elections were fought only by candidates prescreened by the president. The fate of one independent candidate who was imprisoned for daring to stand outside the only party is still unknown. While Berdymukhamedov was lauded as a reformer for an early move to reinstate missing years in the education system to bring the country back into line with international standards, the government has since proved its authoritarian credentials by moving to bar students from attending universities abroad, denying their right to education and effectively putting an end to their prospects. It seems in Turkmenistan that one hand of the president gives and the other takes away.
According to proponents of rapprochement, Turkmenistan is "opening" and should be helped out of its isolation. However, if Turkmenistan is open for European business—and this is not entirely clear—it remains closed to human rights monitors. Any travellers who wish to see more than the Potemkin village tours offered to diplomats on brief visits out of the capital will be accompanied by state-appointed guides.
Others decide that being forced to collude with the authorities is not a price worth paying: Medicins sans Frontieres left Turkmenistan in December 2009 after 10 years working there. A report released by MSF details the problems in Turkmenistan’s health system witnessed at first hand—including falsification and manipulation of health statistics on mortality and communicable diseases. MSF’s agonizing dilemma about how far and where to compromise serves as a lesson for other international actors, including the EU.
Speaking out about human rights abuses and supporting persecuted human rights defenders when you have an interest in keeping the government happy is difficult. Yet it is necessary. Without an international outcry environmental activists such as Andrei Zatoka would be in jail on trumped up charges, and Annamamedov Matiev would not have received permission to travel for his eye treatment.
For the Matievs the story had a happy ending this time. But in the absence of rule of law, they and their compatriots remain prey to the whims of officials from immigration officers all the way up to the president. It's a lesson that international actors, including the EU, thinking of engaging in Turkmenistan, need to take to heart.