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Interview with Rachel Debner

Chronicles of Turkmenistan: Rachel, recently Human Rights Watch published a press release devoted to the new Strategy of the World Bank towards Turkmenistan. Could you please tell our readers what is the core idea of this Strategy?

Rachel Debner: This Strategy is called "interim" and itskey idea is to provide technical assistance to the Turkmen government. It is worth noting that for the past 10 to 15 years the World Bank has not had any plan or strategy towards Turkmenistan. This is very important since it is now that the World Bank has decided on a very serious move – to deal with a closed country which they have not been familiar with so far. This means that the position of the World Bank towards Turkmenistan has significantly changed.

To be more precise, the Strategy envisages rendering technical assistance to the Turkmen authorities in the field of macroeconomic management and fostering the development of finanical and private sectors. However, this does not imply investment in Turkmen projects: the Bank offers its assistance by helping with concrete actions, for instance, training the relevant agencies and officials employed there to improve their financial management skills. In other words, teaching the basics of macroeconomic management.

Chronicles of Turkmenistan: One of the key pillars of the Strategy is civic participation in governance issues. In your opinion, how is it possible in the reality of modern Turkmenistan?

Rachel Debner: Yes, this is the policy pursued by the World Bank – to enablemeaningful civic participation in goverance issues and this applies not only to Turkmenistan. Overall, this is the core of any World Bank strategy – to ensure that governance becomes more comprehenisve and that ordinary people get involved, to ensure that public hearings are held involving residents on any issues significant to the state and that civil society has an opporttunity to influence a decision-making process.

Overall, this is a good concept but taking into account the Turkmen reality it is out of the question right now. For this reason we submitted to the World Bank a letter proposing a slightly different approach of the Strategy. Primarily, we believe that all efforts should be focused on urging the Turkmen government to implement reforms because at present the level of control and repreressive crackdown on residents by the state is so high that we should focus not on getting citizens involved in governance but on how to get rid of or weaken state control over residents.

Chronicles of Turkmenistan: Rachel, but in order to make the residents actively participate in a decision-making process in government issues, a developed civil society is needed which is non-existent in Turkmenistan. Doesn't the wording itself – "public participation in state affairs" sound absurd? Does the World Bank realize that?

Rachel Debner: I absolutely agree thatwithout civil societythe World Bank strategy cannot be implemented in practice.It is difficult to imagine that the World Bank does not understand this as many reports have been published by competent international organizations which feature a comprehensive overview of the political system in Turkmenistan. Moreover, World Bank employees have paid visits to Turkmenistan more than once and have an idea of what is going on there and what possibilities are available.

Needless to say, there are individual activists in Turkmenistan who collect and disseminate information about corruption in power, repressions, violations of citizens' rights and liberties, but the number of these activists is very limited. However, all these experts have to operate behind the scenes, in a semi-underground manner, and regrettably it is impossible to treat them as a fully-fledged civil society. And, needless to say, such activities pose serious risks to these people. All of this is the result of the system which exists in Turkmenistan.

Chronicles of Turkmenistan: Has it ever occurred to you that this Strategy will bring "ill luck" to the civil society of Turkmenistan? Because if the World Bank confesses that it will be collaborating with the government of Turkmenistan, it will admit that it is possible to work with this regime!

Rachel Debner: This is what our press-release is about – this is what we are all concerned about. The adoption of such a Strategy indicates that cooperation with this government is possible and gives a signal that the situation is more or less stable in Turkmenistan, though it is just the opposite.

This undermines those efforts which are being undertaken by other international human rights organizations to draw attention to the problems in Turkmenistan – human rights violations, corruption, economic and social problems which persist in the country. We recommend to the World Bank to start any cooperation with Turkmenistan gradually, step-by-step and only once the government has started to carry out the reforms.

Chronicles of Turkmenistan: The World Bank articulates in its Strategy that they would like Turkmenistan to make a pledge toimplement governance reforms. Do you think that the promises made by the Turkmen government could be treated seriously and are reforms in today's Turkmenistan possible?

Rachel Debner: Of course, one should not trust promises but only results and insist that the results are achieved. And only then close collaboration with such a country can be initiated. As regards reforms, I can only say that it is always possible to carry out reforms if there is the political will. At present there is no hint that the Turkmen authories have the political will to implement reforms.

Chronicles of Turkmenistan: In this case it appears that this Strategy is either absurd in its nature or is just a mere formality. Don't you think so?

Rachel Debner: It seems to me that the World Bank believes that what they are doing is logical guided by the principle that it is better to do something than to do nothing. Probably they hope that once they have initiated collaboration with the government, they will be able to make an impact or urge the governmnet to improve the situation. Taking into account the fact that it is very problematic to make any agreement with the Turkmen authorities,they belive that there should be a starting point, even if the situation is far from perfect. However, I am afraid that they will be very disappointed as this approach is totally wrong. Hopefully, they will take into consideration our recommendations and will consider the opinion of civil activists who reside and work in Turkmenistan.

Rachel Debner – Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch

Source: TIHR