Not to say anything bad about people fighting the good fight and all, but...civil society? Turkmenistan? Really, guys?
I was really, really curious what they would come up with.
It's true that there are a very tiny handful of human rights defenders in Turkmenistan, or intellectuals who question the regime modestly, and such, and perhaps that's whom they met? But there's no transcript of the meeting or even a press release -- there's only a round table with journalists which is separate.
UPDATE: I've now found out about Blake's meeting, although not from his office, and as I suspected, it was a very tiny number of people who are very beleaguered, so I won't mention their names, so as not to put them further in the spotlight and targeted for repression. Although I do hope that this meeting with the somewhat influential United States will guarantee them in fact some modicum of protection.
I've also been hearing more from various human rights groups about the press law, and found it is quite fake: you must be accredited by the state to be called "a journalist," so that freelancers and bloggers do not count and are not protected. Remember the old American adage: the best press law is no press law. That's why it says "Congress shall make no law..." in the First Amendment.
There are many issues that should have been discussed by Blake in his meetings with officials, but we don't know what they were because they're secret (except for the answers to the press at the round table, which were not very complete, despite his protestations).
There are the appalling conditions in the prisons; the long sentences to political prisoners who are missing or who don't get visits for very long periods.
There's the entire issue of Russian migration/citizenship which has been handled horribly by both Russia and Turkmenistan, forcing people either to give up their jobs and homes and flee to Russia in uncertainty, or stay in Turkmenistan but unable to leave and live as second-class citizens.
One of the reasons I insisted on keeping Jackson-Vanik on the books is because Turkmenistan remains as essentially a non-market economy which restricts emigration -- it keeps a black list of people not allowed out of -- or into --the country.***
So...did they mean that they were going to meet with the Galkynysh Galkynysh Galkynysh imenno Galkynysha? ("Galkynysh" is a Turkmen word that means "renewal" or "revival," and the state makes very heavy use of it for just about everything -- they renamed their gas fields by this word, and it's also the name of a fake government-organized civic movement that in fact actually got disbanded and folded into something else recently, I think. Galkynysh is also the name of Berdymukhamedov's yacht.
If you look down below at the recommended articles, you will see one BBC story, "Turkmen FM Missing for 10 Years". He likely was outright executed in the prison system or died of mistreatment. I've always been astounded that an actual foreign minister -- a man who met with all kinds of foreigners and was known around the world because of the role this gas-rich state played in the region -- could actually go missing and no one would really seem to ask for him anymore. Does anymore? There's your answer about civil society: that. When they find him -- or confess to what they have done with him, that's the day that maybe civil society might begin...
Right before Blake's plane touched down, the Turkmens churned out a new "liberal" media law. I'm sure it will be implemented in practice *cough*. As usual, with his latest house-cleaning, Berdy has kicked the latest TV director to the curb. Who would ever agree to take that job?!
Now, I'm the first to say that civil society doesn't have to exist in registered NGOs, let alone USAID or Soros grantees. If anything, the more a social movement can exist without those confines, which can be deadly in their own way, the better. Civil society can take lots of forms. In this part of the world, you can't be horribly picky. You work with what there is. If all you can do is GONGO work, you do that, just because it's better than a stick in your eye.
But when you do this sort of fake stuff, you have to keep pinching yourself and reminding yourself it's fake -- and I don't think enough people do that these days, especially younger people. They come to believe the fiction that USAID is helping "the community" when they do this or that in a place like Turkmenistan. In fact, they are helping strengthening the autocratic government. It's like the questions I asked about the Navy Seabees, God bless them, when they go help the Stroibat in Tajikistan. This has its blessings, but it's good to ask what at the end of the day it is reinforcing, an abusive coercive army that is displacing what could be a viable private sector in construction or...
No doubt some bureaucrats somewhere are trying to tease out the tendrils of this new press law and call it some sort of "improvement"...
To be sure, various things go on in Turkmenistan that are touching or quaint or that provide people with a sense of "humanity" that gives them hope that "maybe" civil society is possible. Of course, if civil society means the ability to go to a Western film show, then we've lowered our standards and we're not thinking of institutions anymore, but just semblances.
Turkmens were moved as any one would be of the horrific massacre of school children in Newtown, Massachusetts, and they left out flowers and stuffed animals just like people around the world.
And Turkmens learn "California Dreamin' to sing for a foreign guest".
But while endearing and human, it's humanity, not civil society, which is what enables societies to be humane as well as human.
I was looking at some photos of North Korean scenes the other day and I saw one that showed a couple and their child having a picnic in a park. The father was bouncing the child up and down. Sure, North Koreans have picnics, even in their totalitarian horror. Even so, it reminded me of Erik Bulatov's painting DANGER with the picnic. The borders loom...
The US had toned down the human rights/democracy/civil society rhetoric quite a bit in dealing with Turkmenistan in the earlier years of Berdymukhamedov's reign. I think they wanted to make sure they didn't queer any gas deals.
But now that those deals have remained elusive for some 6 years now, and all those promised blocs for Chevron and ConocoPhilips and such aren't materializing, the US has gotten a little bit more forward-leaning on the human rights portfolio.
So now someone like Blake will actually weave these words into his speeches but of course in an entirely anodyne fashion:
As I said earlier, we had a good discussion on human rights issues, some of the new laws that have been passed here in Turkmenistan, as well as on educational and exchange programs that are of great importance.
This was an opportunity to say something a tad more critical about that press law with the paint not even dry on it, but, alas...
Unfortunately, when the US does this, well, not so forcefully, and does it much more in places like Belarus, it gets this snide reaction from the Russians, as gundogar.org reported about an interview with Sergei Mikheyev, general director of the Center for Current Politics on Voice of Russia:
By the way, some information came out about how [Blake] would meet with representatives of civil society, and talk about human rights. I think such a conversation in Turkmenistan will be extremely uninteresting, especially given the background of America's vested interested in the region.
It's just interesting to see their approaches: in some parts of the world, they trumpet about their principled and uncompromising adherence to the struggle for human rights even to the point of hysteria, and in others -- they simply don't notice obvious things in places where it is profitable for them.
Ouch. Well, no angel he, as Russia's appalling support of the most murderous regime on the planet now after the North Koreans -- Assad in Syria -- just trumps anything any Russian wants to natter on about human rights.
But he doesn't say anything any different than US human rights activists who complain about the selectivity with which the US bashes Belarus -- because it can -- and is mute on Russia and Central Asia.
This is because of the 60% chokehold that Russia has over us with our need to go through their back yard with the Northern Distribution Network.
Turkmenistan does not let us send trucks or trains through their land, but they allow overflights of "non-lethal" materials and they have a "gas-and-go" arrangement at their airport -- and are building a new airport.
At the press round table we see the real limitations of this semblance of advocacy:
Question: You last visited Turkmenistan in 2011 as part of a regional tour of Central Asia as well as Azerbaijan. During your last visit you criticized the very slow speed and tempo of reform and democratization in the region, and in Turkmenistan in particular. So what has changed?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Well, in all of my meetings today I just expressed the view of the United States that political development needs to keep pace with economic development, and that it’s very important for any society to have a vigorous civil society to help ensure popular support for the programs of the government.
So we talked about the new law on mass media as well as the law on national security agencies and, again, I urged progress on all the fundamental freedoms, not only because those are important in their own right, but because those will help to ensure a stable, democratic, and prosperous future for Turkmenistan.
Question: Can you provide more specifics?
Assistant Secretary Blake: I think I’ve been pretty specific.
I've followed up with a query to him on Twitter on who these people were in "civil society"; I think it will "go nowhere".
Well, one wonders if in the conversations, Blake asks things like "Say, where's your foreign minister? He's been missing for a decade. Did you find him yet?" Or "Say, how are those young people who put up Youtube videos of that explosion in Abadan? Are they out of jail?"
I suspect the conversation doesn't go that way. And it's hard to make it go that way when the real hysterics and trumpeters are people like the regime representatives, not only about how wonderful they are, with their iodine in the water and safe baby zones and everything like that, but how awful the rest of the world is by contrast.
What you have to do with a situation like this, as I said, however, is work with what you can. Yes, it's good to have the visiting inspectors and firemen raise the tough cases. Those who have to work there have to try to do the benign things like windmills or anti-AIDS programs that they can get passed.
They have to try to find their "counterparts" in the professions and try to break their isolation. Of course, all the people allowed to meet with foreigners are groomed and cleared and you end up talking to the same ones over and over again at the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights WITH the President, in meetings where the Protector, as he is called, beams over you from a portrait. No matter, you keep trying, especially to get Turkmens to travel outside their country where they can have some new experiences.
No doubt Amb. Robert Patterson does all of these things, with his considerable experience from Leningrad to Somalia; he speaks Russian, and probably tries every little thing you can try there to try to create normalcy. But it is hard, and you can't do it alone. It would help if the US could get the EU more on the same page so that things like German doctors agreeing to preside while Berdymukhamedov, trained as a dentist, operates on a hapless Turkmen patient, don't happen and therefore don't add lustre to this lunatic.
It's about damage control, and pushing the envelope, and not conferring legitimacy on them. And hoping for a better day...
Meanwhile, in a place like Turkmenistan, it's best not to organize something called "a meeting with civil society" when it most certainly doesn't exist even in the tattered form it does in say, Uzbekistan.