"Turkmenistan remains one of the world's most repressive countries," reports leading rights organization Human Rights Watch. "The country is virtually closed to independent scrutiny, media and religious freedoms are subject to draconian restrictions, and human rights defenders and other activists face the constant threat of government reprisal."
Despite the country's horrific human rights record, the U.S. considers Turkmenistan an important ally. The State Department met with a delegation of Turkmen government officials last week, stating that the "United States looks forward to broadening and deepening its relationship with Turkmenistan."
The meeting was the fourth Annual Bilateral Consultation with Turkmenistan. The department's official Twitter account shared a photo of Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal welcoming Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov. It also created a Flickr album with photos from the meeting.
The State Department said the delegations discussed a variety of issues, but did not detail any specifics. I contacted the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, requesting more information about its meeting with an authoritarian ally. A Department of State spokesperson replied with a boilerplate response, saying:
"During the annual bilateral consultations, participants discussed all aspects of the U.S.-Turkmenistan relationship, including political developments, regional stability and security, human rights and labor, including religious freedom and media freedom, education, cultural cooperation and exchanges, and economic development and trade. We can't get into specifics regarding individual cases, but we regularly urge the Government of Turkmenistan to uphold its international obligations with respect to human rights."
I further inquired, asking whether the U.S. delegation addressed specific human rights abuses surrounding the Turkmen government's torture of political prisoners and repression of media and civil society organizations. The Department of State spokesperson, who asked to remain anonymous, added a handful of words -- namely "prisoners of concern" and "freedom of the press" -- to the exact same above statement, and wrote, again in generic language:
"In our bilateral conversations we regularly raise issues of human rights, good governance, and democratic development—including adherence to international obligations on civil and political rights. Our experience has always been that states with strong democratic institutions, that provide both political rights and economic opportunities for their citizens, are most likely to be stable and secure in the long-run."
In its press release announcing its meeting, the State Department also failed to mention Turkmenistan's egregious human rights violations.
Dissidents are often imprisoned in Turkmenistan, and human rights organizations have accused the government of torturing political prisoners. The Turkmen government does not allow the International Committee for the Red Cross full access to its prisons, and it has prevented independent human rights observers, including at least 10 United Nations special procedures, from monitoring its rights abuses.
NGOs are banned in the country unless they are registered with the government—but the government has not allowed a single independent NGO to register in over five years. Moreover, the media is tightly controlled by authorities, and journalists are arrested for critical coverage.
Why would the U.S. be interested in allying with such a tyranny? Turkmenistan "occupies a critical geographic juncture, sharing long borders with Afghanistan and Iran, and acts as a transportation, humanitarian, and economic link to Afghanistan and the South Asian subcontinent, advancing regional stability," the State Department notes in its its 2015 fact sheet on U.S. relations with the country. "The Government of Turkmenistan engages with the United States in many areas, including cooperation in border and regional security programs," the State Department continues.
Even more important is that Turkmenistan has some of the world's largest natural gas reserves. For years, the U.S. and allies have been planning on creating a pipeline across the region. The little-discussed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) Pipeline, at more than 1,000 miles long, will transfer natural gas from Turkmenistan's gargantuan gas fields into the growing neoliberal economies in India and Pakistan. Construction on the $10 billion pipeline is estimated to begin at the end of 2015. BBC reports that the U.S. "strongly supports the pipeline plan, calling it 'a transformative project for the entire region.'"
The State Department highlights that "Turkmenistan’s vast natural gas and oil resources continue to attract foreign companies to the country" and that "Turkmenistan’s energy resources hold the potential to alleviate regional energy bottlenecks, if developed with diverse export routes." The department additionally indicates that "Turkmenistan has signed a trade and investment framework agreement with the United States and other Central Asian countries establishing a regional forum to discuss ways to improve investment climates and expand trade within Central Asia." The U.S. and Turkmenistan have a most favored nation trade agreement.
The State Department does concede that "Turkmenistan is a closed society with an authoritarian political system," whose "overall human rights record remains poor," but insists that the "government has taken some modest steps forward in human rights reform," and that progress "toward reforms has been sporadic, and improvements will require significant time, effort, and resources." Human Rights Watch has warned against such baseless optimism, reporting that the "release of several political prisoners and the adoption of some new laws that some have hailed as 'reform,' have barely dented this stark reality" of repression and totalitarianism.
Turkmenistan is not the only autocratic U.S. ally in the region. In its list of "America’s Other Most Embarrassing Allies" (aside from former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak), Foreign Policy points out that Turkmen neighbor Uzbekistan is also a friend of the U.S. The Uzbek government is "one of the world’s worst torturers," and "has routinely stifled political dissent in Uzbekistan, banning opposition groups — particularly Islamic ones — stifling the press and jailing thousands," but its economic and military ties to the U.S. are growing.
Despite America's promises in the Cold War, after the fall of the Soviet Union, democracy did not come with the restoration of capitalism in these Central Asian countries. Instead, Turkmenistan and its neighbors remain extreme authoritarian capitalist states. These important U.S. allies ensure that trade can carry on uninhibited, that fossil fuels can flow unabated, and that the U.S. military maintain its firm grasp on this "critical geographic" region.
A 2001 op-ed in the New York Times warned that "the new campaign against terrorism is pulling Washington ever closer to tyrants and satraps in Central Asia. Three of the least appealing leaders -- in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan -- have now become American allies." 14 years leader, these draconian governments remain U.S. allies, while the Obama administration has twice extended the wildly unpopular war in and occupation of Afghanistan.
When non-allied countries are authoritarian, the U.S. frequently publicly condemns them for their anti-democratic policies. At the same moment, however, the U.S. is strikingly quiet about its own iron-fisted dictatorial allies -- not just in Central Asia, but also in the Middle East (e.g., Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt, etc.), Africa (e.g., Ethiopia, Uganda, etc.), and more.
"The United States has led the world in aggression and subversion -- overthrowing elected governments and imposing vicious dictatorships, supporting horrendous crimes," argues renowned scholar Noam Chomsky. Chomsky says U.S. support for dictators in the Middle East has prevented democracy from taking hold in the region. The Middle East is not alone, however; to its east, American allies continue to stifle democracy and repress dissent. Yet no one discusses U.S.-backed Central Asian tyrannies like Turkmenistan.
If the U.S. met with a delegation from a non-allied despotic country like North Korea, pundits and journalists would make sure the public never heard the end of it. But when the State Department meets with one of the world's most repressive countries in hopes of "broadening and deepening its relationship," the silence roars.