Little is known about Turkmenistan, a reclusive Central Asian state of just 5.5 million. Since gaining independence in 1991, the former Soviet republic has remained largely isolated, despite its vast energy reserves, estimated to be amongst the largest in the world.
In an interview with IRIN, US Ambassador to Turkmenistan Ann Jacobson offered her views on where the country is today and the many challenges it faces for the future, including areas of education, economic reform, human rights and the development of civil society.
Prior to her three-year assignment as former US Deputy Chief of Mission to Latvia, Jacobson served as Deputy Executive Secretary at the National Security Council at the White House, where she facilitated the development of foreign policy initiatives for the National Security Advisor and the President.
QUESTION: Since Turkmenistan gained its independence in 1991 the country has faced numerous challenges. What is your overall assessment of where the country is now?
ANSWER: Several positive developments marked the last year in Turkmenistan, including the lifting of exit visas and the beginning of registration of minority religious groups. We are pleased about these developments, as well as with the increasing security cooperation between our countries. We hope to see a continuation of these positive trends.
Nevertheless, the US government would like to see democratic and economic reforms. Government efforts in this country are focused on fostering centralised state control. The parliament (mejlis) and the judicial system of the government have no genuinely independent authority. The country's economy remains dependent on central planning mechanisms, although the government has taken a number of small steps to make the transition to a market economy.
My government considers promotion of small and medium business as important measures to develop a market economy in Turkmenistan. This will also help reduce the level of unemployment, which remains a serious problem in Turkmenistan.
The US government is also concerned about education - particularly the decline in years of primary education, the lack of sufficient opportunities for advanced education in Turkmenistan, and recent decrees to discredit higher education systems abroad.
We are prepared to offer assistance to Turkmenistan in the above areas. The country has the potential to play a positive role in the region, and we'd like to help realise that potential.
Q: In terms of peace and stability, following the events of 11 September, the US government has taken a far greater interest in Central Asia and countries like Turkmenistan. What concerns if any do you have for this country?
A: Turkmenistan is located in a complicated neighbourhood. Afghanistan is a nation in transition. Several terrorist activities took place recently next door in Uzbekistan. We know that there is a regional drug-trafficking problem. We are worried about the potential for trafficking in persons and weapons of mass destruction, which are not yet problems here but could be in the future if prophylactic measures are not taken now.
Above all, the US government believes that real stability and security come from a respect for human rights, economic and educational opportunities, and the ability of the individual to contribute to the political process. We hope to increase our cooperation with Turkmenistan in these areas.
Q: Aside from very sporadic press reports from Turkmenistan, very little is known about this country, revealing a genuine lack of transparency. Why is that?
A: Part of the problem is the lack of free media inside Turkmenistan – this means that international press stories are often based on inaccurate or partial information. The international community should work hard to promote increased dialogue with the people of this rather isolated country. In my opinion, exchange programmes are the most effective means for developing mutual understanding. Every year, over 100 students and professionals travel to the United States on exchange programmes.
These people share Turkmenistan with the many Americans and citizens of other nations whom they meet during their programme. We also have exchange programmes for journalists. While in the United States, they work on stories about America, learn American and international standards of journalism and see first hand how free press works in the United States. At the same time, they help Americans learn more about Turkmenistan.
The US government encourages Turkmenistan to allow greater freedom of press and speech and to engage more actively on the international arena, including under the umbrella of international organisations such as the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Q: Rights groups have long been critical of the Turkmenistan's human rights record - described by most as being extremely poor. How credible are such assessments and what is the US government's position towards them?
A: The US Department of State's 2003 Report on Human Rights Practices in Turkmenistan describes the government of Turkmenistan's human rights record as poor. The United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) both adopted resolutions on Turkmenistan in November 2003 and April 2004, respectively expressing concern over ongoing human rights violations and calling on the government of Turkmenistan to ensure full respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The United States is active in international organisations, because we believe that a coordinated approach is essential to achieve future results. The international community is still looking for Turkmenistan to live up to its freely accepted international human rights obligations, like development of civil society and NGOs, access to prisons, freedom of movement, assembly, speech, conscience, etc.
We also engage the Turkmen government bilaterally, officially and unofficially, verbally and in writing. On every occasion that I have to speak with a member of the government of Turkmenistan, we discuss these issues.
We are pleased that the year 2004 saw some positive human rights developments in Turkmenistan, including increasing freedom of movement and freedom of religion. The Department of State plans to release the next report on human rights practices in Turkmenistan soon, and we expect it will be more positive this year than in previous years.
Q: Recently, the OSCE Ambassador to Turkmenistan was forced to leave the country after the Turkmen government refused to renew her accreditation. What message is being sent with this incident?
A: The OSCE centre in Ashgabat has been doing superb work, across its mandate, which includes security, and both economic and democratic development. Therefore, the expulsion of the head of mission was a great disappointment to us. This was a dark spot in a year with many positive developments. The president of Turkmenistan criticised the former head of mission for contacts with relatives of those involved in the November 2002 attack and other individuals with complaints.
However, this is part of the OSCE mandate everywhere in the world. The OSCE and diplomatic missions are entitled, indeed obligated, to listen to individuals looking for assistance. We hope that the government of Turkmenistan will move quickly to approve a new head of mission and will work cooperatively with the OSCE in the future.
Q: How would you describe Washington's relations with Turkmenistan and where do you see them going?
A: Bilateral relations between the United States and Turkmenistan are increasing. Our cooperative engagement with Turkmenistan spans a broad range of issues, but we are particularly focused on human rights and democratic reform, economic development, and security cooperation. We believe we are making progress in all three areas, but this is a continuous process.
Q: Turkmenistan played a significant role as a humanitarian aid corridor to northern Afghanistan after 11 September, a story largely unreported in the international media. Are those activities continuing?
A: We respect Turkmenistan's neutrality status, and are pleased that the country has found a way to contribute to the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.
Q: Earlier this year, the International Narcotics Control Board [INCB] was particularly critical over the level of cooperation being provided by the Turkmen authorities on the issue of drug proliferation from Afghanistan. Has there been any improvement on the situation?
A: Narcotics trafficking is a worldwide problem, which can only be tackled cooperatively. We are particularly concerned about trafficking through Turkmenistan, given its long border with Afghanistan. I am glad to say that over the past year, the US Embassy has enjoyed a greater level of cooperation from the government of Turkmenistan in the areas of security and fighting drug trafficking. The government has been more willing to send military and law enforcement officers on exchange programmes to the United States and other countries for professional training.
With increased cooperation from Turkmenistan's side, our engagement is increasing both through our Export Control and Border Security Office and our International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Office. This engagement includes both training and equipment transfers. Turkmenistan's government is also increasing its engagement in this area with the United Nations.
We have a long way to go before we have a clear picture of the level and nature of the problem here, but we have made a start. We are committed to providing continuing assistance, both training and equipment, to fight this problem.
Q: Recent successes in drug seizures in neighbouring Tajikistan suggest traffickers in Afghanistan might be changing their tactics - coming through Turkmenistan instead. How concerned is the US government on the level of drug trafficking in the country and what is it doing to assist the government in mitigating it?
A: As I mentioned earlier, we assist the government of Turkmenistan with training and equipment to fight the drug trafficking problem in this country. Over the past year, we've sent almost 200 Turkmen security and law enforcement officials abroad for training and provided 50 vehicles and other equipment to help secure borders and fight crime. In February this year, four US Drug Enforcement Agency specialists conducted a two-week advanced joint training programme for government of Turkmenistan law enforcement officials to share their expertise and experiences in drug interdiction, intelligence gathering, financial investigations, operational planning and other areas.
In August, the US Embassy handed over 20 drug/precursor test kits and office equipment to the State Forensic Service of Turkmenistan. The US Department of Justice continues to cooperate with law enforcement authorities of Turkmenistan as part of the ICITAP [International Criminal Investigative Training Programme], which aims to assist foreign governments in developing the capacity to provide professional law enforcement services.
Q: The US government has invested millions of dollars promoting civil society and grass-roots democracy in Central Asia. How is that happening in Turkmenistan and how successful have you been?
A: This is a particularly challenging area. True civil society is necessary for any country to develop. We provide grants and technical assistance to civil society organisations in Turkmenistan. Since the beginning of this year, around 70 grants have been provided to various NGOs, initiative groups and private citizens by the US Embassy to develop civil society in Turkmenistan. We are working with community groups to enhance their capabilities, as well as with government agencies to help them better understand the role of civil society. We look forward to seeing the number of civil society organisations in Turkmenistan grow.
Q: What in your view are the most pressing challenges Turkmenistan faces now and what is your overall prognosis for the country for the next five years?
A: Among Turkmenistan's pressing challenges are its decreasing educational opportunities, unemployment, and narcotics trafficking and addiction. As I mentioned before, democratic and economic reforms are necessary for the country's future development.
Nevertheless, having travelled to all five welayats [provinces] of Turkmenistan and having met many people of different backgrounds scattered throughout the country, I know that the people of Turkmenistan are wonderful people, working hard to improve their communities. And I believe that if the government of Turkmenistan continues to expand its level of cooperation with the United States, we can work together to ensure a strong and positive future for the Turkmen people.