Turkmenistan: Rights and wrongs

Turkmenistan: Rights and wrongs
Former president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov discussing plans for the city built in his honour. / Turkmenistan state media
By Akhal-Teke: A Eurasianet Bulletin November 9, 2023

It has grown evident for almost a year now that critics of Turkmenistan’s government are not safe even when living in exile.

According to reporting by Amsterdam-based news website Turkmen.news, there is a man particularly responsible for this situation: Guvanch Ovezov, the deputy head of the National Security Ministry, or MNB, the successor agency to the KGB.

Ovezov has since the start of 2023 served as the MNB’s international liaison representative. One of his primary goals appears to have become repatriating dissidents by means legal or otherwise. He is effective at it.

One notable case cited by Turkmen.news was that of government-critical YouTuber Farhad Meymankuliev, better known by his assumed name Farhat Durdyev. In May, Meymankuliev was detained in Turkey, where he lived, and shortly thereafter dispatched to Turkmenistan, where he was reportedly sentenced to around two decades in prison.

Ovezov is described by Turkmen.news as a pet official of President Serdar Berdimuhamedov. The two crossed paths while the latter was working as an advisor to the Turkmen ambassador in Russia, which he did between 2008 and 2011.

According to the news outlet, Ovezov served at the time as the resident MNB officer in Moscow. This post includes the responsibility of monitoring Turkmen nationals completing university studies in Russia. Ovezov periodically joined the then-consul, Mekan Ishanguliyev, for meetings with those students. Ishanguliyev is now an ambassador to Turkey, the country from which many Turkmen dissidents have been deported.

All of this will be getting an ample airing at the country Universal Periodic Review being carried out this week at the United Nations Human Rights Council, or UNHRC. As submissions made to that review amply document, opponents of the Berdimuhamedov regime have good reason to seek safe havens.

“Torture and ill-treatment [remain] widespread and [are] largely perpetrated with impunity. Torture and ill-treatment [are] reportedly used more in pre-trial detention facilities to obtain confessions in criminal cases and in prisons against individuals imprisoned on politically motivated grounds,” according to a joint submission from the Belgium-based International Partnership for Human Rights and the Austria-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights.

It barely needs mentioning that access to lawyers for political prisoners is inexistent and trials are held behind closed doors.

Zeroing in on a specific procedural issue, Human Rights Watch released a statement on November 3 pressing the UNHRC to hold Turkmenistan to task for failing to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. This protocol includes among its objectives a “system of regular visits undertaken by independent international and national bodies to places where people are deprived of their liberty, in order to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Turkmenistan’s two-leader act saw another turn on November 3 when the former president and father of the current incumbent, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, travelled to Kazakhstan to lead his country’s delegation at the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) summit. Berdimuhamedov the elder seized on the opportunity to register his country’s readiness to supply gas and electricity to Kazakhstan. 

This comes against the backdrop of Kazakhstan’s recent decision to push off signing a potential gas supply deal with Russia until at least 2024. Speaking in St Petersburg on November 1, Kazakh deputy prime minister Roman Sklyar said the conversation with Gazprom was for an agreement on the delivery of 3bn cubic metres of gas yearly.

Some historic poor planning has left energy-rich Kazakhstan in the odd position of suffering seasonal interruptions to its electricity supply too. 

In some pointed timing, while his father was in Kazakhstan, President Berdimuhamedov was in the Balkan province to visit the construction site of a new 1,574-megawatt power plant. The plant is being constructed by Turkish company Chalyk Energy (a name rendered by the company itself as Calik Enerji) and fitted with steam turbines made by US giant General Electric. The expectation is that the plant will be up and running by May 2027.

There is evidence that the government’s move to scrap subsidies for basic requirements – an integral aspect of the authoritarian system’s social contract – is not entirely consequence-free. Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported on October 30 on how residents of Ashgabat are noting an increase in the occurrence of petty theft. Supermarkets are also routinely catching shoplifters in the act, the outlet reported. 

While no specific data are available, law enforcement sources who spoke to Chronicles say that they are seeing people across all sexes and ages engaged in thieving.

“At bazaars and supermarkets, people steal food, clothing, cosmetics, household detergents, anything that can later be sold or used,” the website states.

This is one area in which the regime clearly feels exposed. Back in August, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, Radio Azatlykreported on the unusual sight of hundreds of people coming out to protest in the city of Turkmenbashi to highlight their inability to buy staples like flour and cooking oil. The shortages attest to the state’s gradual rolling back of a decades-old food subsidies programs that the poorest Turkmens rely on. 

Despite the recurrent bragging about how many hospitals are being built, the authorities struggle to provide reliable healthcare too. Azatlyk reported on November 2 on a worsening outbreak of measles in the capital, Ashgabat. A correspondent for the broadcaster said most of the patients being seen in hospitals are of kindergarten age and that doctors are struggling to provide adequate care to all-comers. This situation notwithstanding, kindergarten workers have been given no guidance on how to deal with this outbreak, Azatlyk reported.

While Berdimuhamedov the elder, a former health minister, might be a micro-manager, it is not this kind of crisis that attracts his interest.

On November 1, he dropped in on the newly built city of Arkadag, which was named in his honour, for yet another inspection of ongoing works. On this occasion, he approved designs for door handles, railings and light fittings that will be installed in government buildings in the city.

In related business, he studied options for a logo for the Arkadag soccer team, which is currently playing its first season in the Turkmen premier league.

“As he familiarised himself with the [candidate logos], Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov noted that they should reflect the development of the sport and attract youth to high-performance sports,” the state news agency reported.

Arkadag is indubitably high performing, not least since all its players were poached from rival contenders. The team is essentially a mirror image of the national squad. 

Arkadag has won every single one of its 17 matches this season. That stream was almost broken on November 3, when Shagadam’s Ikhlas Magtymov managed to reverse a two-goal deficit by scoring a brace. Six minutes after the end of regulation time, though, Arkadag were most fortuitously awarded a penalty, which was duly slotted away, guaranteeing the champions-in-waiting a 3-2 victory.

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.