US should pursue stability and security for citizens of Turkmenistan

Urgent agenda for the new U.S Ambassador to Turkmenistan.

On August 3, 2022, President Biden announced his nominee Ms. Elizabeth Rood for the position of “Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Turkmenistan”. As a Turkmen and expert who has been working with the public in Turkmenistan for the last 20 years, I would like to use this opportunity to reflect on the US -Turkmenistan relations.

For the last 20 years, with the start of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, my country has been viewed by the United States mostly in relation to its security priorities in Afghanistan. The invasion ended by the US hastily leaving Afghanistan in a collapsed state on August 30, 2021.

This “Afghanistan first” policy and priority resulted in a dysfunctional US-Turkmenistan relationship. At the surface level, every time the US Ambassador or US government delegation met with the government of Turkmenistan, they ended up shaping engagement around only “how can we help Afghanistan?” This continues to this day but now under the framework of the “peacebuilding process” in Afghanistan.

The United States established diplomatic relations with Turkmenistan in 1992 following its independence from the Soviet Union. This year the US Embassy in Ashgabat is running a campaign celebrating 30 years under #StrongerTogetherat30. I wish there were actions and a report to show for what exactly makes the US – Turkmenistan relations stronger?

The laundry list of human rights abuses reported by the US State Department in Turkmenistan is overwhelmingly long. The State Department notes that the government’s overall human rights record remains poor, including re-designation in 2021 as a Country of Particular Concern for its restrictions on religious freedom and re-designation as a Tier 3 country in the 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report. There is a huge gap between what the reports say and the United States’ actions in and towards Turkmenistan. None of these issues gets discussed publicly and there are no signs of progress but only devastating and continued regression in terms of what basic freedoms are left for ordinary Turkmens to enjoy.

With the ongoing war in Ukraine, it is hard to talk about the long-term US strategy for Turkmenistan. I would like to identify urgent areas and short-term goals for engagement for the new US Ambassador in Turkmenistan. If these urgent issues of national security and stability are left unaddressed as they are now, there is a great chance of large numbers of Turkmens being pushed into despair and poverty. This will undoubtedly undermine US larger goals for peace and stability in the region.

The United States should launch a process that will benefit the public in Turkmenistan by addressing actual realities. The US should not be engaged in short-lived, public relations projects in any sector as it is doing at the moment and push instead for meaningful, fundamental reforms in governance and institution building that will help the public to be heard by the government and for the government to start hearing the public in Turkmenistan. Otherwise, the US is widely perceived by the public as an enabler of the current poor governance.

The United States should be urgently raising draconian limitations imposed on the freedom of movement, heavily restricted access to the Internet and the absence of basic economic freedoms of the citizens of Turkmenistan with the government. It should start reporting the outcomes of the meetings to the public.

Freedom of movement: Since March 2020, citizens of Turkmenistan cannot freely leave and enter the country as it is guaranteed in the national law. Even if the government does not admit and report infections and deaths from COVID-19, it imposed draconian restrictions on international travel. It is important to note that the US government never publicly called on the government to admit and report COVID-19 infections and deaths.

Citizens of Turkmenistan are now experiencing their own Berlin Wall, their freedom of movement is severely restricted by imposition of vague, arbitrary, selective rules for travel. This means that Turkmens cannot travel for work, study, business and urgent medical needs. Turkmens are separated from their families. There are reports of deaths that could have been prevented by getting adequate medical treatment in India or Turkey. Turkey is a major destination for economic migrants. They line up every day at Istanbul Airport to get on a flight to return home and very few manage to do so.

Turkmen passports do not get renewed at the Embassies of Turkmenistan overseas. It is not clear if this is due to poor administrative capacity or due to some political reasons but we do know that expired Turkmen passport impacts the status and wellbeing of Turkmen citizens abroad.

Access to information: The government is running an Internet blockade and this impacts access to basic online educational resources. Internet speeds in Turkmenistan are some of the slowest in the world. It is expensive. Even the website of the US Embassy in Turkmenistan gets periodically blocked. But the embargo goes beyond just the digital. Each year only about 350 titles get published in the country, which means that Turkmens are cut off from modern, scientific knowledge, literature, and the arts. This poor access contributes to low health and educational outcomes. It means that Turkmens live shorter lives and experience poor health, high levels of maternal and children mortality. A lot of young people are neither studying nor working. Young people in Turkmenistan are missing out on educational and employment opportunities and the educational gap dividing them with their peers in neighboring countries is ever widening.

Economic freedom: Turkmens are cut off from the basic and essential financial services. Most of them do not have or use bank accounts. International banking and services are not available in Turkmenistan and the only option is to send and receive money from Turkmenistan is a havala system (an informal method of transferring money based on trust). Government does not disclose any statistics but it is known that unemployment is above 50% in the country. The annual inflation rate in Turkmenistan was 45% in January, 20% in February and 16% in March of 2022.

According to this report by the State Department, “Endemic corruption, a weak commercial regulatory regime, and strict currency controls compromise the investment climate and discourage FDI. Turkmenistan is currently considered high risk for U.S. foreign direct investment”. It is for these reasons of endemic corruption and lack of opportunities for growth that drive brain drain among young Turkmens. Very few graduates of US funded educational programs choose to go back and stay in the country.

It is common knowledge in Turkmenistan that the Ambassadors who get sent to Turkmenistan usually are close to retirement age and being in slow-moving Ashgabat makes them start enjoying a relaxed pace of life. Ms. Rood will be going to Turkmenistan after her work in Russia and Afghanistan. I hope she will not treat Turkmenistan as an opportunity to take a break from busy diplomatic life but as an opportunity to do real good in a country resistant to change.


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