Not content with treating his own citizens with contempt Turkmenistan president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow now appears to have the European Union (EU) on a string, if reports of an upgrade from its current liaison office to a permanent mission in the nation’s capital Ashgabat are to be believed.

Quite what the EU want with and in Turkmenistan isn’t immediately clear. While the seemingly sincere but horribly naive rhetoric emanating from Brussels talks of engaging with the Berdymukhamedow regime in several strategic areas, including human rights and the rule of law, one wonders if anyone with a foreign affairs remit has commissioned even the most cursory level of research into the innumerable violations of civil liberties committed against the Turkmen people. Are the EU painfully ill-informed, or hoping by cosying up to the regime that they can incentivize a softer line of rule, in exchange for opening new markets for Turkmenistan’s vast hydrocarbon reserves?

I feel anything other than initiating a hard ball approach with the president is in effect playing into his hands. Any dictatorship thrives on flattery, to not only inflate both a supersized ego and deluded mind but also from the notion that it can control those of far greater power as if they are pieces on a chess board. The Kim dynasty, in particularly Kim Jong-un scoring a summit with President Trump, squarely falls within this category. The position of the European Union should be unequivocal, refusing to do business of any form with Turkmenistan until the country has enshrined a commitment to democracy through free, monitored elections, turned away from a policy of forced labour within is cotton fields, and that a thorough, transparent audit is undertaken to explain why a rumoured $23 billion of Turkmenistan’s money is sitting in several German bank accounts – whilst many of its citizens cannot even access basic comestibles.

The European Union perhaps feels it has a better chance of bringing Turkmenistan into line with a ‘cannot beat them, so join them’ approach, although this will inevitably blur the lines of just who is getting more from the relationship than the other. If though merely an attempt to reacquire Turkmen gas for Western use, the empty bombast of wishing to engage the country on a wider remit looks to be little but a poorly disguised smokescreen. If, and it is a big if, anyone in the EU has done its homework on Berdymukhamedow, they will be acutely aware that far from sharing the spoils from the country’s fossil fuel windfalls for his countrymen’s greater good, or creating a future-proofing Sovereign Wealth Fund, the president has blown billions on his own vanity, and treated the receipts from the nation’s natural resources as his own cash machine. If indeed a Sovereign Wealth Fund does exist, one must wonder if the reported German-based king’s ransom has been set aside in the event of an unplanned, drop of the hat exist strategy…

Regardless of Turkmenistan’s natural resources the European Union should not be blinded by what it can get out of a deal with a country run by a highly volatile dictator, whose sneering antipathy towards the electorate is couched in every announcement supposedly designed to promote healthier lifestyles, when in reality these Potemkin-esque schemes fall at the first hurdle. If a country cannot feed its own people, how does the president expect his choreographed appearances in empty, state of the art gyms, riding expensive racing bikes around Ashgabat’s deserted streets, and shooting a round of golf with Jack Nicklaus, the designer of perhaps the most expensive white(green?) elephant in Central Asia, to positively resonate with the country at large? Instead, Turkmenistan’s rank and file can surely only conclude that they are being laughed at by someone ably demonstrating as being highly skilled in the art of spending the money of others, who have less than no power to stop him. Now, far from taking an appropriate line with Berdymukhamedow, it seems the European Union are tripping over themselves for a piece of the action.

If this is what the EU stands for in countries outside of its natural geographic reach, especially in those classed as rogue states, I for one am relieved that the United Kingdom has taken a Brexit strategy, however painful a course it has proven to be.

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