There has been little change over the past year in the one-party hermit state of Turkmenistan, where authoritarian President Saparmurad Niyazov continues to dominate everyday life.
Under the weight of his 13 year-old dictatorship, social and economic conditions in Central Asia's most reclusive state continued to stagnate or worsen in 2004. Niyazov maintained tight control over political life in the largely desert state, responding to outside international pressure only occasionally. Six religious prisoners were released and several minority religions were registered over the year.
These events, however, were insignificant compared to crackdowns in other spheres, and the country continued to suffer from an abysmal human rights record. The president oversaw staged parliamentary elections in December, maintained his almost weekly purges of government officials, and persisted to block humanitarian access to individuals convicted of an alleged coup against him on 24 November in 2002. Media freedom and any signs of political opposition were unseen.
"Arguably, the situation deteriorated most markedly in the social sphere this year," Erika Dailey, director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, told IRIN, from the Hungarian capital, Budapest. More and more of the country's 5 million inhabitants had fallen into poverty, substance abuse and prostitution. Educational opportunities, including even a basic high-school education, continued to dwindle, she claimed.
Turkmen medical professionals reportedly were increasingly concerned that official reluctance to address HIV infection in the former Soviet republic might fuel an AIDS epidemic in the country, media reports suggested.
Turkmenistan's economic indicators were mixed in 2004. Although Ashgabat claimed a staggering 20 percent growth in this energy-rich country's GDP - to US $19 billion - unemployment stalled at around 50 to 70 percent, and essential social services, like public health, underwent such dramatic cutbacks that by 2004 they were virtually non-existent, Dailey added.
Compounding the problem was the complete lack of social and economic reform evident in the country. While the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) concluded its first working mission to the country in 2004, clearly many more visits were needed.
"We are concerned that the lack of any significant reform is rapidly sealing Turkmenistan's fate as a failed state," Dailey warned.
Bordering on an unstable Afghanistan, where poppy cultivation increased this year, Turkmenistan remained an area of interest both for Russia and the West. In August, the International Narcotics Board (INCB), an independent UN body monitoring global drug proliferation, called on Ashgabat to do more in bringing the landlocked nation in compliance with international drug control treaties in the region.
"There is still a lot more to be done on the part of the [Turkmen] government in complying with the provisions of international drug control treaties and it is premature to assess any progress made by the government in addressing the drug control situation in the country," Herbert Schaepe, Secretary of the INCB, told IRIN.
THE YEAR AHEAD
Despite recent political change in Georgia and Ukraine, change in Turkmenistan in 2005 is unlikely under the current political climate.
According to a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) in November, Niyazov's Turkmenistan had not responded to quiet diplomacy, modifying a few policies only when faced with a threat of sanctions or other punitive action. In failing to take a strong stand against widespread human rights abuses and the plundering of the country's wealth, the international community had prioritised short-term economic and security benefits, it maintained.
Given the longer-term risks of serious instability if the trends were not reversed, however, a firmer line would be needed, it warned. "International organisations and concerned governments should forge agreement on a list of key reform benchmarks and start working much more actively for real change."
Meanwhile, heavy ideological indoctrination and the destruction of the education system suggest the country's problems will not end whenever Niyazov leaves the scene. The economy was becoming brittle, despite oil and gas, and the eventual political succession could well be violent, the report warned.
Erika Dailey agreed. Turkmenistan had vast wealth and could be one of the region's success stories, but repression and corruption domestically and elusiveness internationally were propelling the country down the road to long-term poverty, illiteracy and instability.
"The international community should be appalled by 2004's trends. With so much international assistance heading to other international crises this year, it is wise to remember that, for Turkmenistan, an ounce of prevention is indeed worth a pound of cure," she said.
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