Turkmenistan’s authoritarian president looked concerned and irritated. Speaking at a press conference after his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a visit to Berlin, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov had just presented a long and glowing picture of his Central Asian country. 

Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel speak at a press conference in Berlin, Germany, August 29, 2016. 

© 2016 Human Rights Watch

Then the first question from a German journalist came. It was about human rights in Turkmenistan –  one issue he had not addressed. Another lengthy speech ensued, on how Turkmenistan’s laws are based on United Nations human rights standards – but also, of course, “reflect national traditions.” And he added his own rhetorical question: “Tell me which other country gives its citizens gas and electricity for free?”

Turkmenistan has the world’s fourth largest gas reserves and often boasts of these free energy supplies to at least some of its citizens. 

Free gas, perhaps (although there are reports that economic problems may soon curb this). But that’s where Turkmenistan’s freedoms dry up. There are no free elections in Turkmenistan, nor a free media, and citizens cannot freely protest in the street. Turkmenistan is one the world’s few countries that regularly bars thousands of its citizens from traveling abroad.

 Merkel noted human rights concerns from the start, saying she and Berdymukhamedov had agreed to allow foreign diplomats to visit prisons in Turkmenistan, and that the countries’ foreign ministers would negotiate the details. This initiative could be used to press Turkmenistan to reveal the locations or fate of dozens of people who have been forcibly disappeared since the early 2000s

But more needs to be done. UN human rights experts and independent groups like Human Rights Watch have been barred from entering Turkmenistan for many years and should be allowed in. 

Merkel said a new draft of Turkmenistan’s constitution should be reviewed by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, an expert legal body that can check whether it upholds international human rights norms. Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations are concerned the draft will reinforce existing abusive practices. Merkel also urged Berdymukhamedov to improve the legal protections for German and other foreign investors, in a region where investors often complain of corruption and weak law enforcement. 

Berdymukhamedov declined to comment on Merkel’s points, so now the important work begins. Turkmenistan wants to export its gas to Europe, and Germany is its biggest trading partner in the European Union. Having given the president an international platform, Merkel and her government should now use their leverage to ensure real actions on human rights follow his flowery portrayal of life in Turkmenistan.