Obscure International Flashpoint Tests U.S. Policy
Armin Rosen

Shocking as this may sound, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might not have been the worst human rights abuser to speak at Columbia on September 24, 2007. Given that few Americans know or care about Turkmenistan and its new President, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, it would be a difficult case to make. But Berdimuhammedov has quietly continued the work of his predecessor by imposing a neo-Stalinist program of social and political control on a country with over 6 million people. For the dictatorial ex-dentist, the anonymity which ensured that his speech here went without protest and without notice masks a human rights record that is at least as abominable as that of his country's southern neighbor.

In its annual survey of "failed states," Foreign Policy magazine gave Turkmenistan a 9.3 out of a possible 10 on human rights, while Iran lagged behind at 8.7—perhaps because the Islamic Republic lacks the costly exit visas and the systematic state intimidation of political opponents that have kept Turkmen civil society stagnant, if not non-existent. Far from the American mainland and the American imagination, Turkmenistan seems more like a punch line than an actual country, and thanks to the cartoonish, two-decade rule of Berdimuhammedov's predecessor Sapuramat Niyazov, that is exactly what it is: a farcical symbol of central-Asian, post-Soviet backwardness. The newspaper Der Spiegel even referred to it as "Stalin's Disneyland."

Turkmenistan is more important than his generally uncritical treatment would suggest. Although it is remote, small, and sparsely populated, Turkmenistan highlights some of the world's most complicated and intractable problems—specifically problems of democratization and the difficulties inherent in the promotion of democracy and human rights. The larger problem is that the United States and the international community seem unable, or unwilling, to address these issues. Even were Turkmenistan not languishing in political and geographic obscurity, the current international framework for human rights enforcement ensures that Berdimuhammedov can continue to oppress his people at will. Making matters worse, American and international diplomacy is structured so that Turkmenistan and countries like it continue to be ignored and enabled. Diplomacy with Turkmenistan treats the country's human rights record with systemic apathy and impotence. A look at the country's history since independence—as well as its eventful past eleven months—helps reveal why.

Turkmenistan became an independent state in October 1991, although the country's descent into autocracy began long before that. In an interview, William Fierman, Professor of Central Eurasian studies at Indiana University, said that Turkmen society was always tribal and decentralized, so Soviet purges of traditional tribal leadership created the kind of long-term social and political disruption that would allow a party thug like Sapurumat Niyazov to seize power 60 years later. Niyazov immediately embarked upon a radically ethnocentric program of national "renewal," renaming himself Turkmanbashi, or "father of the Turkmen," and spending 15 years making sure Turkmenistan remained the only former Soviet state with a one-party system. It might be accurate to say that Niyazov was motivated by some abstract ideology or another—at least insofar as an authoritarian concept of national pride can be considered "ideological." Indeed, Niyazov's distrust of all non-Turkmen social elements, from Islam to the country's sizable Russian and Uzbek minorities, suggests a nationalist project having as much to do with Turkmen pride as with the thuggish maintenance of permanent, absolute control. Indicative of Niyazov's approach to power was one of his last decisions as president, when he imprisoned the country's aging Chief Islamic Mufti on trumped-up charges of treason

But Niyazov did more than use nationalism to justify a rigid, exclusionary political system in which power was vested in a unitary leader and his small ruling clique. He also employed tactics harkening back to 17th-century European absolutism, implementing policies that deliberately blurred the line between Turkmenistan and Turkmanbashi. Niyazov's Rukhnama, a book of meditations on Turkmen history and culture, was published in 2003 and became both the basis for civil service exams and a cornerstone of Turkmenistan's ailing public education system. While the West joked about Niyazov renaming the months of the year after himself and forcing doctors to swear allegiance to him in lieu of the Hippocratic Oath, both decisions were effective in solidifying his political and cultural centrality. And his country's radical isolationism helped drive the point home: not only was there no world beyond Turkmenistan, there was also no world beyond Turkmanbashi. Anyone who suggested otherwise or was suspected of suggesting otherwise was dealt with severely and immediately.

Only strengthening this form of thought police was the political purge following a 2002 assassination attempt, during which Niyazov eliminated any domestic check on his power. In the months after the assassination attempt, security forces arrested over 200 people, including a former foreign minister who was viewed as a possible rival to the president-for-life. The crackdown, coupled with the firing of several cabinet ministers, ensured that Niyazov would be in absolute control of his country.

School of International and Public Affairs professor Rafis Abazov, whose Historical Dictionary of Turkmenistan provides an exhaustive and accessible overview of the country's complicated 3,000 year history, says that Niyazov's ability to exploit the social chaos and lack of an organized opposition movement in the years after independence allowed him to seize almost unlimited control of the country. Niyazov's autocratic political philosophy excluded everything outside of his cultish and hyper-nationalist purview, a tack which Abazov blames for leaving Turkmenistan totally unprepared for modern political and economic challenges. In a time of globalization, terrorism, and Russia's increasing assertiveness, Turkmenistan barricaded itself from the outside world. One way it did so is through its institutionalized radical brand of civic parochialism propped up by, among other things, a $50,000 fee for marrying a non-Turkmen national. As the world became increasingly connected and increasingly complicated, Turkmenistan's outmoded form of government kept the country's citizens isolated, deprived of Internet access, and subject to prohibitively expensive exit visas. The government's distrust of private enterprise and its formal policy of "neutrality" further distanced Turkmenistan from global trends and events. Due to these policy decisions and others, Turkmenistan lags in terms of economic efficiency and foreign investment even though it sits atop one of the largest natural gas deposits on earth.

Niyazov's one-man state failed to collapse after his unexpected death in December of 2006. His cultish system of total control had become so entrenched in Turkmen life, according to both Abazov and Feirman, that Turkmenistan is years away from making any significant moves towards democracy. Niyazov's success in positioning himself as an all-powerful national father figure kept prospects for systemic change scant. As the invulnerable source of everything from the names of the days of the week to a guiding, pseudo-religious national philosophy, his influence was so great that Turkmenistan seems to be an exception to Hannah Arendt's observation that totalitarian regimes are marked by their inability to reproduce themselves. While the leaders of post-war Germany and post-Stalinist Russia attempted to distance themselves from their totalitarian predecessors, Turkmenistan's Berdimuhammedov, who seized power after he helped supplant the constitutionally-appointed acting president, vowed continuity. In his speech at Columbia, he lauded Niyazov and referred to him as "a part of our history." Although Berdimuhammedov has been praised for attempting to dismantle Niyazov's cult of personality by taking down pictures and statues of the former leader, the reality is unsettling: "In the political field, there have been no big changes," Abazov says of the past eleven months. "Practically no changes at all."

That Turkmenistan continues to be ruled by a firmly ensconced, authoritarian dictator—and that the world is apparently unable to do anything about it—is due in part to the changes Berdimuhammedov has made. In the months after Niyazov's death, the international community saw an opportunity to engage a resource-rich country bordering both Iran and Afghanistan. In a speech before the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on September 17, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Evan Feigenbaum said that the U.S. had sent "fifteen Executive Branch delegations to Turkmenistan at both senior and working levels" since last December. Revealingly, he said that Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice ordered Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher to Niyazov's funeral. The U.S. has made its interest in Turkmenistan abundantly clear, and Berdimuhammedov's government has replied by making Turkmenistan more open than it has ever been as an independent nation.

Yet this has initiated a diplomatic exchange in which democracy and human rights have hardly been relevant. Turkmenistan is looking to tap into the U.S.'s technologically superior energy sector, and the U.S. is looking for an economic and strategic partner in an increasingly troublesome part of the globe. While Feigenbaum identified "democracy and human rights" as among the "five key areas" on which American diplomacy would focus, Fierman says that the U.S. has little leverage in a country like Turkmenistan. "We are at the margins," he says, explaining that Turkmenistan's resource wealth has afforded it the opportunity to remain semi-isolated without running the risk of complete social and political collapse. The U.S. is unwilling to squander its already limited leverage on human rights issues. Thus in March of 2004, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State traveled to the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat to discuss possible military and political cooperation with Niyazov's government. Turkmenistan is a strategically useful country, and, as Feigenbaum mentioned in his speech, it is seen increasingly as a place where American, Russian, Chinese, and Iranian interests are very much in conflict.

This lukewarm commitment to human rights issues is standard practice for American foreign policy, especially in places where the chances of democratization are so slim. But if we were to believe President Bush's rhetoric on American foreign policy, current political crises are resolved—and future crises are prevented—through a hard-line commitment to democracy and human rights. President Bush said as much in his second inaugural address: "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one." Other parts of the speech also evoke the idealism of American foreign policy. "America's belief in human dignity will guide our policies," Bush said, going on to claim that "all who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know the United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors."

Gas is an important natural resource for Turkmenistan, which lacks other vibrant industry.

Human rights historian and Professor of History Samuel Moyn explained that America's commitment to human rights has always been subject to the prevailing political climate. According to Moyn, the idea that democratization should be a fundamental goal of American foreign policy began with Woodrow Wilson's vision of a democratic post-war Europe, and gained traction during the decline of a realist approach toward the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1970s. But, says Moyn, "it is fair to say that the general story is one of hewing to interest at the expense of rhetoric, especially idealistic rhetoric." Wilson's failure to get the Senate to endorse the League of Nations is a case in point. So is Turkmenistan, where our prioritization of strategy over human rights proves the widely-held belief that countries are incapable of breaking with their own self-interest—an academic theory that Moyn cited in connection with America's inconsistent diplomatic commitment to its own higher ideals.

Further de-legitimizing the lofty rhetoric of America's democratizing zeal is the degree to which American foreign policy could pursue democratization at the expense of human rights. Citing a controversial Cold War-era theory that short-term support for oppressive regimes could provide the political and economic stability needed for lasting democratic change, Moyn explained that human rights and democratization often run against each other. President Bush might have spent his second inaugural address arguing that "democracy" is a cure for human rights problems, but things play out quite differently in places where democracy is far from a top priority. In Turkmenistan, the single-minded push for democracy outlined in Bush's inaugural address simply is not an option. So what is?

In a country showing as little movement towards democracy as Turkmenistan, aggressive promotion of democracy could alienate Turkmen leadership while having no discernable impact on the Turkmen polity. Though a hard-line on democracy would be counterproductive, incremental improvements in human rights might create the preconditions for broader change. For instance, Human Rights Watch researcher Maria Lisitsnya said that NGOs could jump-start Turkmen civil society and become vital instruments of political change—so long as Berdimuhammedov can be pressured into allowing them to operate freely.

The fact that Berdimuhammedov has not allowed NGO's to operate freely highlights the incoherence of U.S. attempts at balancing human rights and strategic interests. Since Niyazov's death, the usual conditionality governing human rights enforcement has been all but absent. Erika Davis of the Turkmenistan Project at the Open Society Institute notes that the U.S. has not changed its policy of aggressive engagement with Berdimuhammedov's government, even though our modest demand for the release of political prisoners has not been met. "We could be demanding a lot more" she says, citing the country's hefty $250 exit visa as one Niyazov holdover that the U.S. could be targeting.

But the U.S. government is not demanding anything, partly because it is afraid that agitating for human rights will cede vital strategic ground to China, Russia, and Iran and partly because of the international community's unfounded optimism in Berdimuhammedov's commitment to political reform. On the former point, Turkmenistan's diplomatically neutral status and historically fractured relationship with Russia make it unlikely that Turkmenistan will accommodate anyone's narrow strategic interests. Case in point: within two months of his Columbia speech, Berdimuhammedov had met with both Condoleeza Rice and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

With regard to international faith in Berdimuhammedov's reformist tendencies, Niyazov's death prompted Abazov to ask in an article whether the new president would be a "Gorbachev or an Ahmadinejad?" In other words, would Berdimuhammedov tend toward gradual reform or maintain a traditional hard line? According to Davis, there is much to suggest that Berdimuhammedov is trying to whet the U.S.'s modest appetite for civil reform in order to reduce the prospect of major change. For instance, the Rukhnama is still integral to the education system, and Berdimuhammedov has released no political prisoners taken during the 2002 purge. It isn't a settled issue, but the new president is firmly in Ahmadinejad territory for the time being, both in his flagrant disregard for human rights and for his apparent unwillingness to liberalize or otherwise reform a system that actively abuses these rights.

American diplomacy in Turkmenistan is based on two false premises: that Turkmenistan can be convinced to serve the United States' interests and that the new leadership could be committed to long-term reform. The U.S. should be orienting its Turkmenistan policy around a coherent set of human rights benchmarks rather than working off of unreasonable expectations and unfounded optimism. But so far, Turkmenistan's authoritarian system has thrived by exploiting the U.S.'s eagerness to work with the new government and by successfully convincing the rest of the world that broad-reaching political reform is still a realistic prospect.

Indeed, the dilemmas posed by Turkmenistan go beyond age-old questions of enforcement. The contrast between University President Lee Bollinger's notoriously hostile introduction of Ahmadinejad and decidedly uncritical presentation of Berdimuhammedov is a helpful microcosm: Bollinger could summon the moral outrage to denounce a government that is placing itself at the forefront of opposition to western and American interests. But he was unwilling to take a similar tack with a president whose offenses are so isolated and devoid of the bombast and dictatorial verve that has made Ahmadinejad such a global superstar. Similarly, the international community won't pressure Turkmenistan because its human rights abuses do not appear to fit into a larger geopolitical puzzle.

If the United States government were truly interested in the international spread of human rights, it would need to centralize Turkmen (and general Central Asian) history and society in crafting its diplomatic approach. For instance, it is vital for us to appreciate how Turkmenistan's present situation could help explain why newly-independent states in Central Asia and elsewhere follow divergent and often disastrous paths. Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are Central Asian countries that became independent at almost exactly the same time—Kazakhstan is a classic "despotic democracy," while Kyrgyzstan rapidly democratized after its "Tulip Revolution" in 2005. Turkmenistan still flirts with totalitarianism. If we better understood the political and social factors accounting for such significant differences, we would be less vulnerable to presumed "reformers" like Berdimuhammedov.

It is easy to understand how the rise of radical Islam factors into our collective interests. It is far harder to see how historic fragmentation, a domineering Soviet occupation government, and global democratizing trends that worry ultra-nationalist dictators like Niyazov have all helped create a fiercely independent state with no civil society, no democracy, no respect for human rights, and little interest in, or respect for, the outside world. Sometimes countries like these really are irrelevant to us (Swaziland comes to mind). But sometimes they border Iran and sell natural gas to Western Europe. And when they do, diplomatic policies that prop up the very autocrats who allow these countries to continue on such a trajectory are strategically unacceptable and morally indefensible. True to the rationale of Bush's second inaugural address, democratic countries are more likely to cooperate with us than rogue autocracies. But we have an obligation to understand how to proceed with countries like Turkmenistan in a manner that would benefit us and the people who live in them.

Underscoring the folly of our Turkmenistan policy is the reality that the U.S.'s diplomatic approach of the past eleven months has succeeded in making Turkmenistan more economically and politically open but has failed to make it more transparent or cooperative. Lisitsnya says that Human Rights Watch has been denied the opportunity to send a mission to the country, where NGOs are tightly regulated and often prohibited from providing vital services. Further severing Turkmenistan from the outside world is the high cost of Internet access. Two dollars for an hour of Internet is an improvement over Niyazov's strict web access policies, but the government still controls and closely monitors all traffic. When asked if Turkmenistan still has a secret police in addition to its regular forces, Listisnya explained that such a distinction is meaningless. "It's just a question of how [the Ministry of National Security] operates," she said. "In Turkmenistan, there is a general policy of keeping everybody silent." Journalists, meanwhile, receive threatening phone calls when the government wants them quiet, such as when foreign delegations visit.

The United States and the international community have the ability to enforce a meaningful policy of conditionality by making concrete demands that could lead to the gradual reversal of Turkmenistan's upsetting historical trend. American diplomatic and economic engagement should depend on Berdimuhammadov's willingness to meet basic human rights benchmarks, beginning with the release of political prisoners and the free functioning of NGOs. Until America realizes why it is important, first and foremost, to promote human rights in Turkmenistan, Turkmen can probably look forward to more of the same—and we can probably look forward to similarly impossible moral and strategic quandaries in parts of the world we barely understand.


Armin Rosen is a List College sophomore. Since writing "Mamdani's Darfur Lobby" for The Current in Spring 2007, Armin has been kept busy covering the madness on campus as an associate editor for Spectator and a daily editor for Bwog.

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