Turkmenistan has been widely criticised for it's poor human rights record, isolationism and the personality cult of it's leader, President Saparmurat Niyazov. Despite enormous proven gas reserves, the country has made little headway economically since independence in 1991 and in areas of governance remains the least progressive of the five Central Asian republics.
In an interview with IRIN, the UN's Resident Coordinator, Khaled Philby, said that ongoing dialogue with Niyazov's administration was helping to address some of these issues and that the country was beginning to take its responsibilities as a UN member nation more seriously. Philby also stressed the importance of an expanded role for NGOs and civil society in a nation where such groups were still viewed with official suspicion.
QUESTION: What recent achievements can you point to that highlight the UN's relevance here in Turkmenistan?
ANSWER: Well, the most recent achievement that we can talk about is something that six or seven months ago we thought would never happen, convincing them [the government of Turkmenistan] to do a report on the Millennium Development Goals. The view from New York and everywhere else was to give it a pass and not even attempt to do it. But not only did we manage to get them involved but we got involvement from as high as the President's office. On Tuesday I got the first draft of the report. There may be issues regarding the contents of the report and things, but the fact that they've gone the mile with us and produced something like that I consider an achievement.
Q: Can you expand on why this is a milestone?
A: I think it's part of their consistent practice of trying to appear, and sometimes more effectively than at other times, to be on the side of the United Nations. They [the government] always make a point of being a member of the United Nations, of being a neutral country, because of the resolution of the General Assembly and they always make a point of stressing their cooperation with the United Nations and it's organs. Sometimes it may appear like lip service, but sometimes when it comes to the crunch the government here does come through with concrete results.
Q: What role has the UN in Turkmenistan played in facilitating emergency relief and reconstruction aid to neighbouring Afghanistan?
A: When the crisis started in Afghanistan, again there was great skepticism about Turkmenistan ever being involved. And the first indications were that they would be reluctant. But as soon as the actual crisis emerged, the government went out of its way to facilitate the United Nations, not for other agencies necessarily though. But as far as any efforts made through the UN, the government set up a special commission to work with us.
The result of that was for the first time, in the history of Turkmenistan, foreign NGOs were able to come and work here, providing relief services to Afghanistan, as long as they were registered under the United Nations. The Turkmen government gave them all the facilities they needed, including transport and transit. The results were that close to fifty percent of all the aid that went into Afghanistan during the war period came through Turkmenistan. So while other places like Uzbekistan got more favourable reporting the reality was the bulk of northern aid to Afghanistan came through Turkmenistan.
Regarding reconstruction there hasn't been much involvement from Turkmenistan itself. Most aid agencies have moved their operations directly into Afghanistan so there's no real need for the corridor. There's still some WFP food aid being delivered through [the eastern city] of Turkmenabad but it's winding down.
Q: So would you say that on a humanitarian level there is genuine cooperation between the UN system and the government here?
A: They certainly seem disposed in that direction. We've only had the one experience with Afghanistan, but no efforts were spared to accommodate us and our needs were met. There were some bureaucratic bungles in the beginning, but when they figured out exactly what we wanted to do they showed us that on the humanitarian side they were keen.
Q: What do you think is the best way for the UN to engage here when quite often there is an official reluctance to address or accept needs in many sectors like such as education and health?
A: Our approach has been a little different from bilateral organisations or some other institutions that have mandates that make their work more conditional and constrained. The approach we take is that Turkmenistan is a member of the United Nations, there are certain international standards set by the United Nations and the various conventions and treaties and we point out it's always in the country's best interests to meet those standards and conventions. So we approach them along these lines.
They are receptive, but there are certain issues that they see as very particular and personal that relate to the country and they try not to approach some of these issues. The UN here does not seek to be confrontational or threatening but pointing out always that the government has duties under the charter of the UN. Secondly we underline that there are issues that are technical and operational that can be tackled that do not undermine what they see as their basic sovereign rights. So we tackle it that way. In many cases we've had a receptive ear and in some cases we're still trying.
Q: Very few NGOs, both local and international, are allowed to operate here. Is this an issue that concerns UNDP?
A: In the beginning there wasn't much emphasis on NGOs here. But UNDP in particular and the UN in general has in the recent past moved much more rapidly and forcefully towards the engagement of civil society and therefore the creation and support of NGOs. So for UNDP it has become a priority. We've had the experience of the Afghan crisis and the government has had the Afghan experience too, so they know NGOs are not the threat they thought they were. They understand better now that NGOs have a mission to accomplish and have no agendas beyond that.
We have worked with some NGOs already and now there's a possibility we'll be working with the Open Society Institute [OSI] with some USAID money on a project aimed to register and support local NGOs, but it's still in the planning stage. International NGOs operated here during the Afghan crisis because of the humanitarian need, but there's no humanitarian need here in Turkmenistan at the moment, so most international NGOs are probably not interested in working here. But developing the local NGOs so they can take part in the building of the country, that's what we are stressing now.
Q: Turkmenistan has become more isolated internationally over the past year with new restrictions for Turkmen people travelling abroad and a reduction in visas for visitors. What role can the UN play here in fostering better international relations?
A: The trend here over the past year or so has been more isolationist. Thing have become even more so following the 25 November presidential assassination attempt and the aftermath, and then the following resolution by the [UN] human rights commission on Turkmenistan and then the decision by the OSCE [Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe] to send a rapporteur. So there has been a cooling down in relationships for a short period. We detect at the moment the beginning of a reversal of that. UNDP has gone out of its way to engage the government with some success. The government has now decided to try and explain their story. The mission of the UN here is to tell them there is a story to be told in the right way, in the right forums, to the right people and they are starting to heed that advice.
They were delighted two days ago when they discovered Turkmenistan is now one of the vice-presidents for the General Assembly for the 58th session. The president has made a big thing about it, so they are beginning to realise it is to their advantage, to engage in the forums of the United Nations.
Q: What are the priorities for UNDP over the next year here?
A: Our priority now is to bring in knowledge and expertise to show the government there is another way of doing things, there's another way of thinking about issues. To show what the ideas are on economic issues, on development issues from former Soviet countries as well as the West in governance, information technology and a host of other areas.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions