From what initially appeared to be more a one-way than a quid pro quo arrangement, evidence now suggests a far greater interest from Germany in Turkmenistan’s affairs than why a reported $23 billion of the Central Asian republic’s money is held in German bank accounts.

When money talks even the angels listen, and one wonders if the scent of so much accumulated hard cash has twitched many German antennae, realizing that there is business to be done in what must seem as an otherwise prosperous, hydrocarbon-rich Turkmenistan. Drilling down beyond the appetites and eccentricities of the former Soviet republic’s autocratic president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow, does though paint a far different picture to the one the Ashgabat publicity-machine likes to present, where a dichotomy of lavish, white elephant projects conceived by presidential ego and self-deification stand incongruously against a backdrop of food shortages for the country’s rank and file.

It is with this in mind and a litany of human rights violations that Germany, and indeed the European Union, press on with furthering relations with what has become a one trick pony, banana republic that ironically has just grown bananas in the country’s south… Heavily reliant upon finance generated from fortuitously sitting atop enormous gas reserves, Turkmenistan is in theory rich beyond its wildest dreams purely by chance, rather than through its own ingenuity, sound planning, and shrewd investment. A lack of a Sovereign Wealth Fund ensures an attitude of ‘today being everything, to hell with tomorrow’ fails to future-proof the country when the gasfields have yielded their last, although one wonders if the multi-billions sequestered overseas have been set aside for Berdymukhamedow’s very own rainy day, in the event of a need for a sharp exit.

It is though a concern that both the German public and private sectors are now taking an active interest in Turkmenistan, seemingly disregarding the country’s appalling treatment of its own citizens, the president’s capricious rule dedicated to satisfying his pointless, but expensive whims and fancies, and the U.S. ban on cotton products whose provenance is akin to the mining of African blood diamonds.

It is assumed that within the European Union its member states adhere to an agreed framework on human rights, both in their own nations and overseas. Dealing with nations whose regimes continually disregard labour laws and closely surveil its citizens at home and abroad should be strictly out of bounds, but furthering one’s own interests where there is money to be made continues to hold the whip hand over moral sensibilities. I therefore find it highly regretful that the EU are to open an office in Turkmenistan, an action that only serves to further legitimize Berdymukhamedow’s rotten regime. It is with no little irony that one of the EU-backed projects is to encourage student-exchange programmes for Turkmen scholars, despite the country’s students already being subject to both covert and blatant monitoring of their movements, and academic progress, whilst studying in Turkey. Which brings me on to further irony, to be aided and abetted by German electronic expertise.

In a country where the EU hopes to encourage greater cross-border mobility of Turkmen students, who, remember are already subject to intense scrutiny while studying abroad, a German electronics concern has recently met with government officials with a view to providing Turkmenistan with cutting-edge surveillance and encryption technology, to in effect ramp up the country’s efforts to monitor and control its own citizens. Such a repressive country is obviously grist to the mill for those in the field of spyware but again presents less a moral dilemma, more an amoral stance that firmly seeks prosperity from further bolstering a paranoid, North Korea-lite regime.

Perhaps the European Union hope their presence in Ashgabat can facilitate change in Turkmenistan, but in the unlikely event this is their motivation for pitching up in Central Asia, such naivety is glaringly writ large. More a coup for Berdymukhamedow than the prompting of one against his regime, the EU are in the end only legitimizing the indefensible. The West are now running out of ways to not seem hypocritical when rare criticism is sent the way of Turkmenistan, when in effect it condemns with one hand, but engages with the other.

I am not aware of there being a collective noun for a group of ironies – perhaps a Brussels would be appropriate – but individually they speak volumes in one damning indictment of present-day Turkmenistan after another. The country’s eponymous airline was recently taken out of European airspace until the European Aviation Safety Agency, an agency of the European Union, were satisfied the carrier met international air safety standards. Who therefore should ride(or fly) to the rescue but German flag carrier and aviation behemoth, Lufthansa.

In the stampede to get a piece of the action in Turkmenistan foreign investors need to exercise significant caution. Aside from declining to get involved in the country under its current auspices, overseas speculators willing to take the risk should be under no illusion that Turkmenistan represents rich pickings and easy money without there being a price of their own to pay. Documented evidence points to several foreign companies having their assets seized at a moments notice, effectively their absorption into the  Turkmen state with little access to recourse. It is somewhat astute of a rogue regime to bring in foreign expertise and finance to develop certain aspects of the country’s infrastructure, before appropriating what is by then a far more sophisticated and valuable asset. Whether Turkmenistan would go to such lengths with German companies is unclear, although its current modus operandi might be tempted to see how far it can push its goodwill with Europe’s most productive and powerful nation.

For those within national governments and trading blocks like the European Union who care about human rights and the wider picture of what is the inexorable hollowing out of a nation such as Turkmenistan, it is for them to stand up for the tyrannized by voicing dismay that the likes of Germany and the EU are intensifying their interests in the country. For those of a purely commercial bent there are undoubtedly rich pickings to be had from a crooked regime, but by doing business with Berdymukhamedow they are aiding further subjugation of the Turkmen people and reducing the credible moral ammunition that can be fired from the West to denounce the former dentist’s despotic administration. Turning a blind eye, by speciously insisting that change can only be brought about by greater understanding of what is a tyrannical regime amounts to a complete lack of moral responsibility, and only serves to expose the real reasons for engaging with asset rich, civil liberties-poor Turkmenistan.

Source material and further information:

Azernews: www.azernews.az/region/145725.html & http://www.azernews.az/region/146762.html

AKI press: https://akipress.com/news:616998/

The Independent(UK): http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/turkmenistan-airlines-suspended-banned-european-union-safety-agency-heathrow-birmingham-a8761651.html

Flight Global: http://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/turkmenistan-airlines-suspended-from-eu-operations-455502/

The Times of Central Asia: http://www.timesca.com/index.php/news/20839-turkmenistan-and-germany-hold-business-forum

Aviation24.be: http://www.aviation24.be/airlines/turkmenistan-airlines/lufthansa-consulting-eu-ban/

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: http://www.rferl.org/a/german-tech-firm-s-turkmen-ties-trigger-surveillance-concerns/29759911.html

EU Reporter: http://www.eureporter.co/frontpage/2019/02/23/engagement-with-turkmenistan-a-step-too-far/

Eurasianet: https://eurasianet.org/turkmenistan-dreaming-of-europe