For my book Turkmeniscam: How Washington Lobbyists Fought to Flack for a Stalinist Dictatorship, I posed as Kenneth Case, a businessman with energy interests in Turkmenistan. A number of beltway lobbyists I approached offered to represent that Central Asian country, and implement a PR campaign to help promote the Stalinist regime there to the American government and public.
Until he died in late-2006, President-for-Life Sapurmat Niyazov — the self-declared “Great Turkmenbashi” and easily a top-tenner on the list of the world’s major ruling lunatics of the post-World War II era – led Turkmenistan. He was replaced in a sham election by Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the Turkmenbashi’s personal dentist. Despite that, two major Washington firms – Cassidy & Associates and APCO – told “Mr. Case” they’d be happy to sell the Turkmen regime in America. (Placing bids of $1.5 million per year and $400,000 per year, respectively).
My pitch was, of course, bogus, but now the Turkmen regime has recruited real help in Washington: the US-Turkmenistan Business Council, which is primarily funded by American oil companies (Chevron, ExxonMobil, Marathon) hoping to do business in the country. The staff includes Diana Sedney, a Chevron lobbyist, and David L. Goldwyn, a consultant to energy companies who served at the State Department under George H.W. Bush and at the Energy Department under Bill Clinton. (Goldwyn also heads up the US-Libya Business Association, an oil-endowed entity helping promote Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.)
The USTBC’s program includes “Briefings with staff members from relevant House and Senate offices”; “Lunches and dinners in honor of visiting dignitaries from Turkmenistan”; and to generally “educate the public about progressive changes in Turkmenistan.” But are there any “progressive” changes taking place in the country under the inspired leadership of its new ruling dentist?
Very little, based on news reports and independent observers. “Politically motivated harassment, detentions and imprisonments continue unabated in Turkmenistan despite the government’s promises to uphold human rights,” Amnesty International reported earlier this month. Turkmenistan remains “one of the most repressive and authoritarian states in the world,” Human Rights Watch said last fall. “Its policies and practices are anathema to European values.”
Abuses have also been detailed by the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, which is headed by Farid Tukhbatullin, a former political prisoner who now lives in Vienna. (Political opposition is forbidden in Turkmenistan, and the entire opposition lives in exile. One opposition figure returned to the country after Berdymukhamedov took power; he was arrested and sentenced to 11 years in prison.)
I met yesterday with Tukhbatullin, who is in Washington to see officials at the State Department, USAID, and a number of private organizations. (His visit was coordinated by the Open Society Institute.) “The new president talked about reforms, but it’s been mostly cosmetic,” he said. “All the schools feature his portraits and quotations from his speeches are prominently displayed. The education system is still mostly about ideological indoctrination.”
Tukhbatullin said he feared that the Obama administration would prioritize energy interests and national security over human rights, especially as Turkmenistan borders Iran and Afghanistan. He noted that General David Petraeus visited Turkmenistan earlier this year to “discuss issues of mutual interest”. Turkmenistan’s proximity to Afghanistan may be especially important, as Obama is ramping up the war effort there and it looks like the U.S. is about to lose access to a key air base in Kyrgyzstan.
Berdymukhamedov’s ascension to power has been an “emotional blow” to the exiled opposition, Tukhbatullin said. “Niyazov was very old and there was hope we could outlive him,” he said. “The new president is relatively young; he may outlive us.”