State Department officials are usually very circumspect when it comes to Turkmenistan, a gas-rich and freedom-poor authoritarian Central Asian nation on the Caspian Sea. Turkmenistan is far more closed than Uzbekistan -- there are hardly any human rights activists or opposition figures there. Hence virtually no one for lonely foreign officials to visit, when they might get a few hours free from their minders, and have nothing to do but rattle around in the huge white marble city in the "dictator chic" genre, with broad avenues and desert-dry air.
So that's why it's news when all of a sudden, in testimony to the US Congress, Robert O. Blake, Jr., Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, whose statements are generally as bland as canned pears, suddenly puts the phrases "pipeline" and "human rights" and "transparency" all into one paragraph:
The recent signing of gas sales and purchase agreements between Turkmenistan, Pakistan and India enables the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline to move to the commercial phase. This project is one example of the potential Turkmenistan has to be a leader in the economic prosperity of the region. We encourage Turkmenistan to build clear and transparent mechanisms for investment in its country.
In order to realize its potential, Turkmenistan must make significant steps to fulfill its international obligations on human rights. The United States consistently raises concerns about respect for human rights at every appropriate opportunity and we have offered assistance to help advance space for civil society and building democratic systems.
That's exceptional, because in recent years, the US has been so eager to court the hard-to-get President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and line up some business with him, especially for American oil companies, that they have tended to keep any comments about human rights to carefully-choreographed private discussions. To be sure, this was a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia, where officials can expect a little more questioning than usual, but still, the rhetoric seems more edgy than in the past.
So, why is this happening now?
Well, for one, the US has been persisting in trying to work with the Turkmens now for the more than six years Berdymukhamedov has been in power, and has precious little to show for it. If anything, despite finally installing a new ambassador after a five-year hiatus, holding special business exhibitions and promotions, offering help and training and educational opportunities, the Americans have at times been kicked in the teeth. Peace Corps members with visas and air tickets in hand have been suddenly delayed and gradually their numbers whittled down to little or nothing. Students ready to leave at the airport for exchange programs are pulled off programs. Chevron and others are seemingly promised an offshore drilling permit, then never get any -- and they'd rather be onshore anyway. US officials work overtime trying to fix these situations up, and it's all kind of mysterious. Now why do the Turkmens do that? After all, we are paying them top dollar to use their country as a re-fueling station for planes bound to supply NATO troops in Afghanistan with non-lethal equipment.
What's up? Perhaps the "multi-vector policy" that rotates so widely from China to Iran to Qatar to Austria to Belarus to England and seems so affable with so many other countries with so many high-level meetings has its saw-toothed edge? Nothing shows you're independent like bashing America! The pudgy dictator has had 249 meetings with foreign dignitaries in the last year! Ok, 317. Alright, I don't know how many exactly but -- a lot, and somewhere in the miles of turgid Turkmen wire copy you can find this exact number.
So because they aren't getting anywhere despite being silent on human rights for all this time, perhaps US officials have decided that they should be a little more forward-leaning. It's a shame that human rights could be seen as a club in that respect, but that is how it's done.
There could be another reason -- Blake and others may be expecting increased NGO protests as the Asian Bank for Development takes the Turkmen-Afghanistan-Pakistan-Indian (TAPI) pipeline out for its road show this fall to various world capitals, in search of oil majors to help build the project and take on the financing and security headaches that will abound. So pre-emptively, so to speak, State has indicated that they realize there are human rights and "transparency" problems. That's for sure -- no one can really be sure just how much money Berdymukhamedov has his hands on -- and it all seems to come through his hands -- and how much he parts with to try to better his fellow citizens' lot -- as distinct from building lots of white palaces.
Nothing gets NGOs agitated like "the extractive industry" -- it easily exemplifies everything they hate about capitalism and commerce, and even if they are not anti-business, they can get behind concern for the environment which is never misplaced when it comes to drilling and pipelines.
Berdy also seems aware of this protest wave that may crest on his country, and talks up a good story about how pipelines under the sea are less dangerous than those above ground. I don't know how much people want to test those theories in a region that is prone to earthquakes, spills, sabotage (remember the April 2009 explosion?), terrorism and even wars -- and of course those vague "shortcomings in performance of work" for which hundreds of officials have been dismissed in the Era of Revival and now the Era of Happiness and Stability.
Of course, as I'm pointing out, the wrath of NGOs is somewhat misplaced on Turkmenistan, when the American companies which they love best to hate aren't even able to drill an inch into the karakum. China has already spent more than $8 billion building a pipeline out of Turkmenistan to China, and not a single demonstration, newsletter, poster, or even email appeared from the usual Western environmental groups. We have no idea what that very rapidly-build pipeline did to the environment or areas or people in Turkmenistan, and that's not only because it's a closed society, but because nobody cared to chase the Chinese National Petroleum Company -- it just doesn't get the juices flowing like US petroleum corporations. In fact, the major Western environmental organizations tend to ignore Central Asia because it's hard to get information.
The exception is a small adovcacy and research organization called Crude Accountability which has Russian-speakers and a network of colleagues in the region and who have persisted in getting the story of environmental damage and oppression in Central Asian countries. You seldom hear of Greenpeace trying any of its "direct action" protests on ships around Russian and its allies -- maybe that's because when local chapters of Greenpeace simply try to hold a rally to protest against Arctic drilling, 23 people are arrested.
So snarkiness of the predictable adversarial culture really seems misplaced, when a company like Chevron -- which in fact has been there all along and isn't "stealing in like a thief" -- hasn't even got a deal. And then there's this -- what I always ask people spouting the usual hysteria on forums: what do you cook your breakfast with every morning, firewood? Pipelines exists in a lot of places of the world where protests no longer appear (Alaska) although it might if something goes wrong again (Alaska). We'd all like to live in a world of outdoor solar-powered offices and computers and Burning Man camp-outs like Philip Rosedale, but we're not there yet.
So it's good to start early and often to hammer on the problem of "lack of transparency," but realistically, it's not going to go anywhere in Turkmenistan until the society experiences much greater changes than have been in the offing since 2006 when past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov died. The Turkmens have figured out (from paying attention to NGOs but not allowing them in their own country) to play the transparency game, and have turned the tables on Chevron and others as I've written, sulking about their supposed lack of transparency for not parting with proprietary technological secrets that no company would part with (say, how about more from the Turkmen side regarding those Gaffney, Clines Associates estimates of the reserves, eh?)
Turkmenistan is a very hard nut to crack -- and nut-cracking in general hasn't gone so well for the US in Central Asia. The US ambassador has actually accomplished a fair amount on his watch, quietly getting some political prisoners freed or getting them family visits and trying to solve the students' cases and keep a positive momentum for both educational exchange and business. There's a theory that trade is a tide that raises all boats. I've never seen that happen in any country in the world. It's claimed for China and Kazakhstan, but we only see continued problems with everything from media suppression to environmental hazards to murders -- business doesn't auto-magically install democracy any more than a USAID project does.
I really don't have a recipe for Turkmenistan other than that more people need to try to go there and report what they see, and more efforts have to be made to get the word out about what happens there, and to pay more attention to those who already get many stories out, such as Chronicles of Turkmenistan. To the extent possible, NGOs should try to follow the TAPI story to see if their interest and efforts to get more information might be some deterrence on the usual bribes and slush funds that abound around things like this.
Yet I'm skeptical that TAPI will start getting built any time soon, or that Western companies will even be involved in it, and the X marked on the map where the backhoes are going to appear may be right at the Turkmen border, not inside Turkmenistan, as Ashgabat continually repeats the refrain that they will "sell their gas at the border," and Europeans and others are taking them more at their word since the collapse of the ambitious Nabucco project.
In any event, the gas-hungry rapidly-developing countries of China and India aren't going to care a whole lot about what Westerners tell them about how they should avoid all the things that Westerners take for granted like gas-guzzling personal cars and invest instead on environmental protection and mass transport. What any environmental campaign has to start with, however, is a newsletter -- a newsletter that nobody is yet able to publish in Ashgabat.