The Frenemy Relationship Status of Turkmenistan and the EU

In 2023 the government of Turkmenistan has been talking on separate occasions about strengthening economic cooperation with the European Union (EU) although the relationship between the two parties is pretty limited. The start of the war between Russia and Ukraine may have also contributed to this as Europe is looking for ways to minimize its dependence on Russian gas exports.

Turkmenistan is the only country in Central Asia which still has not signed the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA). The draft EU-Turkmenistan PCA was signed in 1998 and Turkmenistan ratified it in 2004. However, the European Parliament refuses to ratify it due to the human rights concerns in Turkmenistan. The Agreement would allow for enhanced discussion and cooperation in all sectors, and would establish a formal Cooperation Council held at Ministerial level.

The PCA contains provisions that would allow:

  • reciprocal most-favored nation treatment for trade in goods;
  • equal treatment of nationals in employment, the establishment and equal treatment of companies;
  • cross border services and enhanced economic co-operation (e.g. currency convertibility and limiting restrictions on the movement of capital and payments for goods and services).

Bilateral relations between Turkmenistan and the EU are governed by an Interim Trade Agreement (2010). Turkmenistan also relied on the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) which addresses only the basic issues of cooperation with the EU. GSP is available to countries with low levels of economic development. If countries’ exports are based on a single, dominant commodity, then they are not required to pay duties on their export to the EU. This cooperation allowed the Turkmen authorities to obtain economic benefits without the cost of introducing political reforms at home. However, when Turkmenistan officially became an upper-middle income country in 2016 and no longer met the criteria for the GSP, it returned to talks on its accession to the PCA.

Following this on 12 March 2019, the European Parliament adopted a resolution setting out concrete human rights benchmarks as a condition for the ratification of the PCA. The new benchmarks includes certain measures that the authorities of Turkmenistan should take including:

  • ensuring unhindered access to alternative sources of information;
  • ending the persecution of independent journalists, civil society activists and human rights activists based in- and outside the country;
  • guaranteeing freedom of assembly and removing restrictions on the operation of NGOs;
  • ending arbitrary travel bans.

The EU Delegation opened in Turkmenistan in July 2019 signaling mutual strategic interest to intensify relations. Turkmenistan is an important country for the EU given its oil and gas resources. But Turkmenistan could also serve as an example of how the EU through its PCA could provide access to the European markets and promote its values and much needed political and economic reforms in the authoritarian country. However, we are yet to see if facilitated access to the European market is worth the potential costs and consequences of reforming Turkmenistan’s politically opaque and centrally planned economic system.

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