In the absence of meaningful, transparent action boycotts and embargoes carry little weight amounting to nothing more than lip service and being seen to say the right thing. Tapping into this blatant hypocrisy often peddled by those from so-called developed, civilized nations the world’s despots and autocrats continue to operate almost entirely unmolested in a modern era characterized by a ‘yes, but…’ mentality.
Outlawing raw cotton products and the finished articles both emanating from Turkmenistan was a laudable step by the United States into the field of Human Rights and morality – two aspects of life which it has at times been accused of not giving sufficient attention and importance. Whether such sentiment towards the central Asian republic’s oppressed citizens stemmed from good-intentioned naivety or amounts to little more than tokenism isn’t altogether clear, but compelling evidence suggests that simply banning cotton products from President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow’s failed state will do little to stop its cash crop flooding international markets.
There are many countries in the world who produce greater volumes of cotton than Turkmenistan; the mutual importance of the crop cannot though be underestimated in whatever nation it is grown quite simply because of our obscene consumerist, throwaway-society mentality. If a product is in abundance and available to buy, our continued insatiability for fast fashion without a thought as to its provenance and tee-to-green process of harvesting to arriving in the shops will continue unabashed. As with many injustices in the world few people actually don’t care, but even fewer care enough to take a stand against money-centricity and the blind-eye it turns to those who suffer to oil its wheels.
As I stated it isn’t obvious to me if the United States were taking a long overdue stand against the many crimes of forced labour within Turkmenistan’s cotton fields and assumed its position would effectuate positive change. If so, they haven’t done their research properly and basically dropped the ball. Most cotton in its various forms leaves Turkmenistan under the auspices of Turkish enterprises, who hold considerable sway in the country from cultivation to the finished articles – including as intermediaries to access international markets. In such circumstances it becomes far harder to verify provenance; without also turning its back on Turkey the United States has perhaps seen such noble sensibilities fall at the first hurdle.
An alternative theory suggests that the United States were far from uninformed of the opacity attached to a raw material prized almost as highly as hydrocarbons – another of Turkmenistan’s few bankable exports – and whilst knowing it is virtually impossible in this sense to separate Turkey and Turkmenistan’s indivisibility, it did at least wish to be seen to be concerned for the welfare of those for whom everyday life under Berdymukhamedow’s eccentric but rotten regime is an ordeal. Subsequent noises from Washington towards Ashgabat have though squarely brought into question the sincerity of the boycott, and whether countries in the West have any notion of self-awareness when they are displaying either utter hypocrisy, baffling ignorance or an unhealthy dose of both.
Is it normal to tacitly condemn a regime that lavishes the country’s shrivelling cash reserves garnered from gas exploration on bizarre, futile projects, for its forced labour practices in the cotton fields, but separately pass on greetings to its Kim Dynasty-lite president and express wishes that it can increase hydrocarbon capacity for the ultimate benefit of the West? As German and British business queue up to do business with Turkmenistan and with the EU preparing to open offices in Ashgabat, the abuses of the regime appear to be less important than what can be extracted from the president’s capricious and punitive rule. Would the West have done similar business with Saddam Hussein and the Kim Dynasty, including its current incumbent? Quite simply, no, but without the threat of a nuclear capability and an overall arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction, President Berdymukhamedow’s ill-treatment of his citizens and misappropriation of state finance to fuel crass self-deification is not viewed as justification to steer well clear of Turkmenistan.
Despotic rulers have from time immemorial known that even the sincerest declarations of international outrage rarely speaks for every country, let alone each with influence within those protesting the loudest. When money talks even the angels listen, or so the saying goes. Those with snouts in the trough rarely look up and around at their surroundings, and few exploring business opportunities in Turkmenistan will shy away on account of the wider issues at play. Perhaps the European Union hope their presence will help facilitate change, but only sustained absence and condemnation should bring about democratic principles, a cessation of prison state-esque practices and ideally, regime change. Again, President Berdymukhamedow will just laugh at such false virtues that condemn on the one hand but on the other jostle for a presence within the former Soviet republic.
The president has recently reasserted the importance of cotton as an integral part of the Turkmen economy, placing greater pressure on local gang masters to hit often unrealistic targets that must be underpinned by ‘volunteer’ workers. Similar aspirations of bumper wheat harvest rarely come to fruition, often because of climatic conditions out of the control of even the country’s self-appointed guardian of the people. Levels of wheat production that fall below expectation often precipitates a knock-on effect of bread shortages; all the while the president steadfastly concentrates on his next multi-million/billion project instead of diverting cash to buy from neighbouring countries foodstuffs the regime has otherwise been unable to produce for its citizens. Such a move would be an admission of failure, and one that narcissistic hubris just wouldn’t entertain.
Only unified and genuine condemnation by Western governments that is followed through with corresponding, not conflicting action can counter the unedifying scourges of hypocrisy and greed in the face of human rights abuses. For those companies who assume their presence in the country is helping Turkmenistan’s economy – think again. Far from filtering down to all sections of society money garnered from the country’s pay dirt is diverted into nonsensical schemes designed to impress the world at large – but which fool only the ignorant. Scratch the surface and there is little of real substance to show for the countless billions that have passed through the president’s hands, including a reported €23 billion squirreled away in German bank accounts. Perhaps the closest thing to a Sovereign Wealth Fund, this more seems a plan for a presidential rainy day than for the country’s future health and prospects once the gas fields run dry.
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