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Reaching Out to Turkmenistan

Most people in the West look polite but puzzled when I mention Turkmenistan. They may remember that it is a former Soviet land in Central Asia and that it has substantial energy reserves, or that it borders Afghanistan, where Europe and the US have significant interests. These factors are providing us with an opportunity to negotiate for human rights for my homeland because the foreign minister, Rashid Meredov, is to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday. We know they will talk about energy but hope they will talk about human rights as well.

As the Soviet era ended, Turkmenistan gained independence -- but not personal freedom. Under our former dictator, Saparmurat Niazov, there was a cult of personality that demanded absolute loyalty. His ways were menacing enough that the West was not comfortable moving nearer. Working for human rights there led me to jail and persecution and to exile in Austria, where I continue my work.

When Niazov died nearly two years ago, a new president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, took power, promising reforms. The West would like to believe that he has carried out his promises, but the changes have been mostly cosmetic. In fact, all of their actions remind me of joggers on a treadmill. They're putting in effort, their legs are moving, but they aren't going anywhere.

You can listen to announcements from the Turkmen authorities about mass prison pardons, about the introduction of the internet, about educational reform, etc. But what came of it? How much has the overall situation changed? Have the conditions been put in place to ensure that these steps will not just be "running in place," that they will lead to consistent movement forward?

There have been some legal reforms, a few people have been allowed to travel abroad, and a handful of political prisoners, who should never have been jailed in the first place, have been freed. But Turkmenistan remains one of the most repressive countries in the world. It needs to fully break with the repressive practices of the Niazov era, and its international partners need to say so.

Independent nongovernmental organizations and media cannot operate openly, if at all in Turkmenistan. Independent activists and journalists are frequently subjected to threats and harassment by security services.There are burdensome requirements for the registration of nongovernmental groups. The only independent group that has been registered in the last two years is an association of gardeners.

The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, who visited Turkmenistan in September 2008, said in her report that although there had been much improvement, the government still imposed worrying restrictions on religion and that religious individuals and communities remained under "close scrutiny" and "still face a number of difficulties."

At least the authorities permitted that visit. A number of other UN requests to look at human rights-related conditions in Turkmenistan have been rebuffed, and international human rights groups are not welcome. Local groups are still persecuted.

One of the positive steps taken by the Turkmen government in 2007 was the abolition of the system of special permits previously required for residents of Turkmenistan who wished to travel in border areas of Turkmenistan. But reports persist that dozens of people continue to face arbitrary restrictions on travel abroad. While these individuals have not received any official explanation, it appears that they were banned because of civic activism or their status as relatives of exiled civic and political activists.

About 20 people believed to have been imprisoned for political reasons were pardoned in 2007. But pardons in 2008 and 2009 included only one person imprisoned on politically motivated charges. An unknown number of people remain imprisoned on political charges, and the government has given no indication that it would undertake a nationwide, transparent review to identify these cases and to free these prisoners.

Turkmenistan has the internet now, but under a state monopoly, keeping it from being a "window onto the world." Although the new draft of the constitution talks about the possibility of having non-state, private educational institutions, the legal mechanisms for this have not been worked out.

There is no competition in the political sphere. This is not just because the predecessor of the current president "cleared" the political field, getting rid of opponents one way or another, but also because there is no provision for competing political parties! What kind of competition can there be for a country's sole political party under such conditions?

Perhaps Turkmenistan's leaders like "running in place" that imitates real movement forward because it suits their purposes. But it doesn't help Turkmenistan's people. We are hoping that Secretary Clinton will think of us and of the rights that Americans take for granted and that the people of Turkmenistan yearn for when she talks with our foreign minister. We hope she will remind him that respecting human rights and political freedoms is part of the deal of closer ties with the West.