If Gas Could Talk

By Sonia Zilberman

Can a deal struck with the EU help the plight of Turkmen – or are we only interested in their country's gas?

After almost 20 years of relative isolation from the west, Turkmenistan – a country with one of the world's worst human rights records – is eyeing European markets for business. And Europe is eager to buy, and quick to overlook democratic principles in exchange for gas.

Turkmenistan's commitment to supply gas for the planned Nabucco pipeline is critical for Europe's energy independence from Russia. Turkmenistan holds the world's fourth largest natural gas reserves, and until recently has been selling them to Russia, a traditional ally. Last April, however, Russia terminated its purchase of Turkmen gas after a pipeline explosion, combined with the impact of the financial crisis, which reduced demand. This decision has been costing Turkmenistan over $1bn per month, making a deal with Europe in the Nabucco pipeline a mutual necessity.

The transit agreement for the pipeline was signed in July by Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Austria in an effort to build a pipeline that would deliver Central Asian gas around Russia and into Europe through Turkey. The projected 3,300-km pipeline has the capacity to supply over 31bn cubic metres (bcm) of gas annually, with an estimated construction cost of 8bn euros.

Until now, the main challenge was to find enough gas to fill the pipe. Iraq has pledged to supply as much as 15bcm to Turkey, but whether it can fulfil that pledge remains uncertain. Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz II Pipeline, currently in construction, would have capacity to supply as much as 12bcm annually, but unfortunately, that pipeline would not be completed by Nabucco's anticipated launch in 2014. Kazakhstan does not want to trade its strong ties with Russia for European markets, and completely refuses to engage. This leaves Turkmenistan – a nearby and vast source of gas for which there has been little recent demand. Last April, the European parliament signed a hasty trade agreement with Turkmenistan.

Since the country's independence in 1991, the country has had an appalling human rights record. After an alleged assassination attempt on President Saparmurat Niyazov in 2002, the Turkmenbashi (head of all Turkmens) cracked down on virtually all fundamental freedoms. A wave of repression against political dissent, religious plurality, independent civil society and media freedoms ensued.

Turkmenistan-presidentWhen Niyazov died and President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov took power in February 2007, the international human rights community had high hopes that restrictions would ease, and reform begin. Almost three years later, those hopes are quickly fading. There is still no free media in the country. Berdymukhamedov, who was pivotal in bringing internet to Turkmenistan, now exercises full control over it and censors heavily. Satellite access has been blocked since 2008, as are international TV channels and print. All sources of media are in effect owned by the government, and dissidence is subject to heavy punishment.

The punishment for dissidence takes on many cruel and inhumane forms. Collective punishment, or the arrest and conviction of relatives of the accused, has been widespread since Niyazov's times. This is particularly effective in spreading fear and suspicion throughout society. Surveillance of suspected parties is the norm. Prisons are filled with prisoners of conscience, who were subjected to unfair trials in corrupt courts. Torture is commonplace.

The freedoms of assembly and association are also virtually nonexistent. NGOs cannot operate without registration, and violation is subject to criminal punishment after the first warning. Religious organisations are also forbidden to function without registration, and so far, only the Russian Orthodox Church and Sunni Muslim communities have been granted it.

Given this dismal situation, Europe's economic investment can be seen as either a withdrawal of its long-standing policy of supporting human rights, or an opportunity.

Recently, the German energy consortium RWE announced that it plans to sign a deal with Turkmengas, the government-owned gas company for the supply of up to 15bcm per year of gas to Nabucco. At the same time, Berdymukhamedov discussed at length with the EU's Javier Solana ways to strengthen the EU-Turkmenistan partnership through energy, trade, education and culture. The website of the Turkmenistan government states: "Gurbanguly Berdimahumedov and Javier Solana exchanged the wishes of every success in the noble mission to foster the dialogue of friendship and cooperation between Turkmenistan and the European Union." This dialogue and engagement does offer an opportunity for the EU to promote human rights, but whether that will happen is unclear. In fact, the discourse on human rights has fallen off the European agenda.

As a historical champion of human rights, the EU must not lose this opportunity to improve the situation in Turkmenistan. The EU can either stand by its principles, or stain its reputation by trading social and democratic liberties for economic gain. Human rights must be integrated into all bilateral and multilateral discussions with the Turkmen government, and their realisation should be a condition for economic relations.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, international political pressure on Turkmenistan has done little to safeguard fundamental freedoms. Now the EU has a unique chance to change that. Turkmen wait and hope that the EU will not let them down.