EBRD must maintain demands that Turkmenistan and Belarus meet set requirements
European Bank for Reconstruction and Development must maintain demands that Turkmenistan and Belarus meet set benchmarks before any investments in the restrictive countries are made. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee participated in a meeting at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in London, discussing the Bank’s balanced approach towards Belarus and Turkmenistan.
Wednesday, 11 April 2012, by HRH Oslo, based on Norwegian Helsinki Committee information
It is a positive step that the Bank has identified concrete benchmarks for reform in the political and economic sphere, states Bjørn Engesland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. However, in both cases we are dealing with unpredictable authoritarian leaders and it is pertinent that progress is based on concrete change on the ground rather than statements and legal reform not implemented. At the meeting, the NHC encouraged the EBRD to enforce the political pressure and try to enhance the role of civil society in both countries, whilst holding back on investment involving governmental institutions. The NHC also submitted an overview over some of the central human rights issues in both countries. The EBRD’s Article 1 of the Agreement Establishing the Bank requires commitment to and application of the principles of multiparty democracy, pluralism and market economies before any investment can be made. Despite statements and plans by the President of Turkmenistan, none of these are present in Turkmenistan today. Similarly, Belarus has no proven improvement in any of these issues and is in fact going in the opposite direction. As a consequence, the activity of the Bank is very low in investment terms, but higher on political advocacy in these countries.
NHC overview of civil society in Belarus
The crackdown on democracy fighters in Belarus since 19 December 2010 has been unprecedented, even for Belarus. The control over society has tightened even more than before. People are being detained and intimidated; the control of the security services has been strengthened. State media repeat President Lukashenka’s words in mocked admiration; independent media are at risk of closure, fines or criminal prosecution. Lawyers defending opposition leaders have been disbarred. OSCE and Special rapporteurs of human rights institutions have been denied access the country, along with International human rights activists. During the trial of Ales Bialiatski, to NHC knowledge no visas at all were issued to potential trial monitors. In addition to closing the borders to foreigners who might be engaged in human rights activity, Alexander Lukashenka has responded to EU sanctions by closing the exit from Belarus to a large number of civil society leaders. Opposition leaders have even been taken off the train crossing the border to Russia. The sphere for meeting each other, face to face, is narrowing down.
In the aftermath of the mass arrests that started on December 19, 2010, more than 30 people were sentenced to prison terms, including presidential candidates opposing Lukashenka. During the last year we have seen many of them released in amnesties. Some paid a high price for their release, being put under severe pressure to make concessions as a condition for their release. Presidential candidates Andrei Sannikau and Mikalai Statkevich, Dzmitry Bandarenka from Sannikau’s campaign team are still in prison. Activists Eduard Lobau, Zmitser Dashkevich, and Pavel Seviarynets were all convicted in this category. These are politicians who wish to serve and to contribute to a better Belarusian society. For this, they have been put behind bars. Convicted in the “anarchists' case” we find Mikalai Dziadok, Aliaksandr Frantskevich, and Ihar Alinevich. Involved in the same case three more were sentenced to seven years in prison for petty hooliganism in seriously flawed trials: Yauhen Vaskovich, Artsiom Prakapenka and Pavel Syramolatau. The businessman Mikalai Autukhovich is a political prisoner. Lastly, but importantly, on this list of shame we also find our friend and prominent human rights defender Ales Bialiatski.
The authorities of Belarus do what they can to undermine civil society activities. The conviction of Ales Bialiatski is a stark example put in front of others involved in human rights defense. Mr. Bialiatski, who for years has helped the victims of the regime and in particular those put behind bars, now finds himself in prison. For years, Belarusian legislation and other restrictive measures have gradually forced NGO activity underground. The Venice Commission concluded fall 2011 that the Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code penalizing actions of NGOs without state registration does not meet the criteria of UN conventions and the European Convention of human rights. Recently even tighter restrictions have been introduced. Among them we find amendments to criminal legislation and legislation regulating civil society, which now criminalize keeping funds abroad. Administrative and criminal liability has been established also for receiving foreign donations “in violation of law”, meaning just about anything for a human rights organization in Belarus. The definition of a picket has been corrected to include any pre-planned meetings between three people or more. Even so, civil society in Belarus continues its work under very difficult conditions. Some 1 500 Belarusians have applied for asylum abroad, an increase of 20% since the year before.
Overview of human rights situation in Turkmenistan
The NHC has been involved in several initiatives towards improvement of the situation regarding human rights and civil society in Turkmenistan over many years. Unfortunately, NHC work is not getting easier. Despite new leadership and stated legal reforms, little if any concrete reforms are noticeable on the ground. At the same time, international attention has increased due to the opening-up to foreign investment. Sadly, this opening-up does not include opportunities for critical journalists, human rights activists, oppositional parties or minorities. It is important to take into account that only concrete actions should be considered progress, not mere statements for the international community, or legal review which is not implemented in practice. Unfortunately, there are several examples that promising statements by the Turkmen authorities and President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov are not followed up in practice.
One concrete example of such practice is the July 2011 statement from the President that he would guarantee the safety of any potential opposition candidate in exile who would like to return to run for President in the February 2012 elections. At the same time as this statement was made, new legislation was developed that identified requirements for presidential candidates that could not be met by any of the politicians in exile; for example no previous criminal record and 15 years consecutive stay in Turkmenistan before running for elections. Despite concrete attempts by the opposition politician Nurmuhammed Khanamov at reaching the Turkmen Embassy in Vienna to inquire about the conditions for his potential return to Turkmenistan to participate in the elections, the Embassy failed to reply to his calls. Another opposition politician who followed up on a perceived opening in Turkmenistan is Gulgeldy Annaniyazov. He was granted political asylum in Norway in 2002, but returned to Turkmenistan in June 2008 after the death of previous president Niyazov in the hope to contribute to democratic change. He was immediately arrested and sentenced to 11 years in prison in a closed trial. His family has not heard from him since Easter two years ago and does not even know if he is still alive, despite several attempts by the NHC to learn of his whereabouts and condition. Several other political prisoners are still kept behind bars in Turkmen prisons on religious or political grounds. In prisons, conditions are hard and relatives are rarely allowed to meet their family members. Non-Moslem religious prisoners are subject to undue pressure to abandon their faith, and are also having difficulties obtaining relevant religious materials or finding a suitable place for worship.
Economic growth does not lead to civil liberties
Despite an increase in Turkmenistan’s economic growth, the population is neither gaining access to relevant information about this income based on high commodity prices, nor benefiting from the revenue in a country with an approximate 70% unemployment rate and almost half of the population living on $2 a day. Activists who strive to prove and inform about economic, social or environmental consequences from exploitation of natural resources are also subject to pressure from the authorities. With the closed nature of business in Turkmenistan, this work is very dangerous. The environmentalist Andrey Zatoka was imprisoned on trumped-up charges and later forced to leave the country and his Turkmen citizenship in exchange for release in 2009.
One problematic investment in social, ecological and political grounds is the Turkmenbashi Port development. According to local citizens and experts, the project’s poor planning has resulted in damage to the environment, the surrounding villages and even another grand investment, the nearby resort site of Avaza. At the same time, international support to this “improvement in selective important regional transport infrastructure” is a form of approval Stamp for the authorities that they are doing it right and does not encourage genuine reform or changed approach.
HRH Oslo, based on Norwegian Helsinki Committee information