Turkmenistan: Welcome to the ombuds office, or no trespassing

Turkmenistan: Welcome to the ombuds office, or no trespassing
Don’t you (forget about me). . / State media.
By Akhal-Teke: A Eurasianet Bulletin March 8, 2023

Every few years, Turkmenistan submits itself to a grilling from the United Nations Human Rights Committee. 

The two-day session held last week stuck to the usual script. Committee members listed what could only, given the time constraints, be a minute portion of Turkmenistan’s shortcomings on human rights. Turkmen representatives replied with a barrage of obfuscations and distortions, unverifiable denials, and hollow pledges to do better.

The basic bar that the government could try to meet would be to allow the 15 UN special procedures mandate holders – meaning such figures as the special rapporteur on torture or the special rapporteur on extrajudicial or summary or arbitrary executions – to visit the country. But as Marcia Kran, a legal expert on the committee, pointed out, all but the special rapporteur on cultural rights have had the door slammed in their faces.

Ashgabat insists that its citizens have every recourse to have their rights upheld. After all, they say, Turkmenistan even has a human rights ombudswoman. But as Kran noted, in a detail of darkly comical grimness, it is not actually possible to physically reach the ombudswoman in person. 

“We know […] of serious obstacles hampering access to the ombuds office. It’s in a government building with high security. The ombudswoman doesn’t see rightsholders in person to discuss their claims, nor do her staff. Complaints that are sent in writing go without replies,” she said.

This uncomplicated and yet consequential point was dealt with characteristic dismissiveness. Getting to see the ombudswoman may have been restricted of late because of COVID-19 protocols, one Turkmen representative said. “But the issue of accessibility is not a problem in my view,” he added. 

Not that COVID-19 should have been a problem, of course, given that Turkmenistan is the only country in the world to insist it has never recorded a single case. On March 2, President Serdar Berdimuhamedov used a speech delivered in Baku, Azerbaijan, at a summit-level meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement devoted to post-COVID economic recovery strategies to pay tribute to the World Health Organization. The WHO acquitted itself with “competence and professionalism,” he averred. As well he might, since the organisation never thought to question the epidemiologically dangerous denialism that the Turkmen government has insisted upon throughout the pandemic.

Corruption got quite an airing at the Human Rights Committee consultations. Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news reported with some satisfaction that Deputy Foreign Minister Vepa Khadzhiyev felt compelled to finally address the question of how the ruling family has benefitted from lucrative government contracts over the years.

One particularly notorious case involves the Ashgabat-Turkmenabat highway. This road is to span 640 kilometres and cost $2.3bn to complete. As Turkmen.news reported in January 2019, one of the four companies involved in the joint venture given the contract to do the work was called Nusay Yollary, which was said to be owned by Annanazar Rejepov, the husband of one of former president (and now National Leader) Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov’s sisters. That Berdimuhamedov is the father of the incumbent president.

Khadzhiyev explained, clearly alluding to Nusay Yollary, although not referring to it by name, that this company was no longer involved in the project.  

“One company that you seem to believe is connected with relatives of the president has left this joint-stock company,” he said. 

As Turkmen.news remarks, however, Nusay Yollary has certainly had many other opportunities to line its pockets, and has done quite shoddy work in return. In August, the outlet cited sources as saying that an underpass built by the company in Ashgabat had been closed off amid concerns it was sagging and that it thereby posed a danger to traffic passing both over and underneath. Nusay Yollary had been picked as the winning bidder for that particular contract only four days after the tender was made public, Turkmen.news reported.

Turkmenistan evidently wants no such mishaps with another major ongoing bit of infrastructure work. On March 4, Berdimuhamedov the elder met, presumably in his capacity as National Leader, with Igor Bukato, the head of Russian company Vozrozhdenie, to take another peek at the blueprints for ongoing works to build a highway from the city of Garabogaz along the shores of the Caspian Sea to the border of Kazakhstan. This feels like a vaguely emasculating gesture for the actual president, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, since he had already inspected what must have been the same blueprints last May.

The main apparent purpose of this highway is to enable the expansion of traffic and trade between Russia and the Persian Gulf. This intention has been in place for years, but has taken on particular salience now that Russia is pivoting hard away from the West. 

Tel Aviv-based newspaper Israel Hayom reported on March 3 that Israel is imminently poised to open a permanent mission in Ashgabat. The inauguration of the premises will take place during an upcoming visit from Foreign Minister Eli Cohen. This is no small matter of protocol since, as the outlet notes, the embassy will be less than 20 kilometres from the border with Iran. 

“The move is intended to send a message to Iran that Israel is a present and growing influence in the region,” as Israel Hayom notes editorially.

This development has been long in coming. Israel first began negotiations to open a diplomatic presence in Ashgabat in May 2009, amid much protesting from Tehran over the proposed ambassador, Reuven Dinel, a native of Lithuania who was alleged to be a Mossad agent. The first ambassador would only be accredited in May 2013, but Israel has had to wait until now to get a proper full-time embassy. 

Anybody feeling nostalgic for Berdimuhamedov the elder’s showboating antics got a treat on March 5, when the National Leader (aka speaker of the soon-to-be-gone Senate) dropped in on a car racetrack belonging to the Interior Ministry. (The Interior Ministry owns a racetrack, incidentally, because sport is very important to the health-conscious president, and car-racing is, after all, a sport). After briefly inspecting a new consignment of sporty BMW models, the 65-year-old got behind the wheel of one car and drove around the track at great speed. Or appeared to, at least. Shots of the BMW doing the most hair-raising manoeuvres were filmed from a distance and so it could not be determined that they actually showed the National Leader behind the wheel.

Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.