As one of more than 130 countries participating in the Frankfurt Heimtextil international textile expo Turkmenistan cannot be singled out for favouritism by the host nation Germany, but nevertheless the link between President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow’s closed, authoritarian state and Angela Merkel’s Teutonic powerhouse remains strong, but all the while disconcertingly baffling.
The Azerbaijan-based AzerNews portal reports that Turkmenistan’s likely presence in Frankfurt during the second week of 2020 will enable the former Soviet republic to showcase its cotton-based textile industry, based on the strength of the one million tons its annual cash-crop is reported to yield. What it does though fail to mention is how the annual harvest is realised and brought to market, where ‘workers’ are shanghaied from their everyday careers to work in the fields or pay an inordinately high price that could involve loss of status and/or intimidation and coercion of their families to pick up the slack. Even the possibility to buy oneself out of what is speciously termed as national duty would also involve finding a replacement worker, willing or otherwise. Rife with Human Rights violations Turkmenistan’s cotton industry is though a microcosm of life under the Berdymukhamedow regime, not an isolated cotton-specific issue.
Although justifiably ranked alongside North Korea for its closed nature and journalistic freedom conspicuous by its absence, there are countless online reports detailing the abuses within Turkmenistan’s cotton fields and how the industry is staffed. It is therefore disconcerting that retail sporting apparel and retail giants including River Island, Wal-Mart, and Puma use Turkmen cotton, despite an apparent U.S. embargo on raw cotton products sourced directly from Turkmenistan. As though much of the country’s cotton ends up in Turkish clearing houses it is often very difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain provenance but nevertheless salves the conscience of not buying direct from source. This does though potentially downgrade the U.S. Customs and Border Protection dictat as symbolic and without the teeth to effectuate change. Notwithstanding the U.S. link to Turkmen cotton through Wal-Mart, it should be remembered that Puma is a German-based brand.
It has often been said that private sector German industry has often looked east, including towards the former Soviet republics. There is of course little wrong with seeking out new market opportunities whilst utilising the country’s strong work ethic and efficacy but links between Germany and Turkmenistan have gone far beyond the point of being casual, informal acquaintances. Perhaps the word has gone out that there is serious money to be made from the Berdymukhamedow administration in the areas which are the most critical to strengthening his power base, and therefore the most controversial.
German surveillance specialists have assisted with Turkmenistan’s efforts to spy on its citizens, both at home and abroad, including those studying overseas. One can argue that Germany will lead the field in many areas of modern life, and it is therefore understandable that the services of its private sector will be called upon by other countries. We are though not talking about fluffy, feelgood parts of Turkmenistan life, if any actually exist, but the surveilling of ordinary citizens attempting to exist in one of the most paranoid, autocratic countries on earth. Has a thought been given by the German surveillance specialists as to the eventual fate of those ‘caught’ by their equipment verbally criticising the ruinous Berdymukhamedow presidency? More a case of taking the money and run, perhaps.
Elsewhere, German flag-carrier Lufthansa has assisted Turkmenistan Airlines to reverse its 2018 EU-wide ban on safety grounds. Again, nobody can doubt the expertise within Lufthansa, but did Turkmenistan approach the airline, or was contact initiated by Germany? If the latter is this another example of Turkmenistan being seen as easy money for Germany ingenuity, at least before the cash runs out altogether? If on the other hand Turkmenistan approached Lufthansa were they the first airline to be asked, and if so why, again, is Germany seen as the default ‘go to’ for Berdymukhamedow?
It is to be pondered what Angela Merkel thinks of the Berdymukhamedow’s Potemkin-esque facade of a country. Perhaps powerless to intervene in the country’s private sector dealings with other countries it is nevertheless unrealistic for Merkel’s chancellorship to be oblivious to the hardships and injustices suffered by Turkmenistan’s citizens whilst countless billions are blown on vanity projects instead of addressing the shortages of basic foodstuffs. Germany’s continued involvement within Turkmenistan to the degree on which it is ranks as the country’s tacit endorsement of the incumbent regime. Merkel should not wait for EU sanctions and outright condemnation of Berdymukhamedow from Brussels – this will never happen – but instead as head of Europe’s most powerful nation take a lead on fighting human rights violations and draw attention to the dystopian nightmare being perpetuated in today’s Turkmenistan.
There is also the matter of $23 billion of Turkmen money ‘resting’ in several German bank accounts. Quite who placed it there, when, and why seems to be of little consequence but an amount greater than the Gross National Product(GNP) of fellow ‘stan’ Kyrgyzstan is less a rainy-day fund – more the equivalent of a king’s ransom. There have probably always been slush funds squirrelled away by vainglorious despots but this amount, and the lack of scrutiny as to its provenance suggests a serious case of misappropriation has occurred, in plain sight. Despite routine purges of government officials on trumped up or nebulous charges of corruption it would seem such prosecutions occur to deflect attention away from the actual culprit, who regards Turkmenistan’s money as his own checking account.
It is with no little irony that a former manager at German company MAN has recently gone on trial, accused of bribing officials within Turkmenistan’s state oil company. Relating to contracts signed during the regime of Saparmurat Niyazov, Berdymukhamedow’s predecessor and recipient of the current president’s dental expertise, it highlights that corruption has been rife since the collapse of the Soviet Union and is by no means the preserve of the current president. Again, however, German involvement is at the heart of the matter, albeit whilst the accused was allegedly seeking to oil the wheels of deals agreed prior to his involvement. There is though an issue of where does Germany draw the moral line: is it acceptable to do business with a corrupt, brutal dictator where corruption, and purges of those taking ‘one for the team’ is rife, when on the other side of the coin a country assisting Turkmenistan to a degree it is should start moralising about the alleged behaviour of one of its own citizens? Controlling the controllables, double standards, or amorality?
Ignorance of how things work in Turkmenistan was perhaps once a credible defence for unwitting but ambitious private sector German companies seeking to expand into high risk/reward territories. There can now though be no such justification for enabling President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow to shore up his power base that will only facilitate a smooth transition to his son Serdar, who confirms the adage that apples rarely fall far from the tree.
Source material and further information:
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: http://www.rferl.org/a/former-german-manager-on-trial-for-bribing-of-turkmen-oil-officials/30319919.html