IOC turns a blind eye to Turk­menistan us­ing sport to le­git­imise tyranny

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines /News - Kieran Pen­der

The city of Ash­ga­bat in Turk­menistan is fa­mous for two char­ac­ter­is­tics. It has the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of mar­ble build­ings in the world and is cap­i­tal of one of the most re­pres­sive regimes in the world. The two are not un­re­lated: allpow­er­ful cen­tral Asian dic­ta­tors with nat­u­ral re­source wealth are able to con­struct os­ten­ta­tious mon­u­ments to them­selves with lit­tle con­cern for their cit­i­zens.

But the cur­rent Turk­men leader, Gur­ban­guly Berdy­mukhame­dov, has grown tired of build­ing with mar­ble. On Sun­day the 60-year-old den­tist’s new­est van­ity project will be un­veiled: the lat­est edi­tion of the Asian In­door and Mar­tial Arts Games. As its pop­u­la­tion con­tin­ues to en­dure se­vere poverty, Turk­menistan has spent a re­ported US$5bn (£3.74bn) on in­fra­struc­ture to host this niche sport­ing event.

Last week in Lima the pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee, Thomas Bach, gave a grandiose speech pit­ting the move­ment he leads against the forces of na­tion­al­ism and iso­la­tion­ism sweep­ing the globe. “We stand for peace, di­ver­sity, tol­er­ance and re­spect,” he said. “Th­ese trends are a call to ac­tion for us. More than ever the world needs our Olympic val­ues.” At the same time ath­letes from more than 60 of his mem­ber nations were trav­el­ling to one of the most re­pres­sive coun­tries in the world for an event run by the IOC’s Asian af­fil­i­ate.

A re­source-rich na­tion spend­ing its fis­cal re­serves on ex­trav­a­gant in­ter­na­tional events is noth­ing new but the scale of re­pres­sion in Turk­menistan is ex­treme. The former Soviet state is among the worst in the world in that re­gard; Free­dom House gave Turk­menistan a score of three out of 100 in its an­nual re­port, de­scrib­ing it as “a highly re­pres­sive au­thor­i­tar­ian state where cit­i­zens’ po­lit­i­cal rights and civil lib­er­ties are al­most com­pletely de­nied in prac­tice”. Only Syria had a lower ag­gre­gate score in the re­port, while Turk­menistan found it­self in the es­teemed com­pany of Eritrea, North Korea and Uzbek­istan.

“Turk­menistan is the most re­pres­sive gov­ern­ment in the postSoviet re­gion,” says Rachel Den­ber, deputy di­rec­tor of the Europe and cen­tral Asia di­vi­sion at Hu­man Rights Watch (HRW). “This is a gov­ern­ment that per­mits ab­so­lutely

no crit­i­cism, no mat­ter how mild, of gov­ern­ment ac­tions, poli­cies or so­cial agenda.”

Yet on Sun­day ath­letes from across Asia and the Pa­cific are ex­pected to take part. Coun­tries as di­verse as China, Kiri­bati, Pales­tine and Ti­mor-Leste will be rep­re­sented, con­test­ing sports in­clud­ing swim­ming, cy­cling, e-sports, chess and sev­eral mar­tial arts. One first-time par­tic­i­pant at the Games is Aus­tralia, with the Aus­tralian Olympic Com­mit­tee (AOC) ea­ger to strengthen sport­ing ties with Asia.

The Ob­server put four ques­tions to the AOC’s pres­i­dent, John Coates, re­gard­ing the pro­pri­ety of Aus­tralia’s par­tic­i­pa­tion, with the phrase “hu­man rights” or sim­i­lar ap­pear­ing five times. The ad­min­is­tra­tor ig­nored th­ese ques­tions and did not in­clude the phrase once in his re­sponse, in­stead of­fer­ing plat­i­tudes. “Par­tic­i­pat­ing in th­ese Games rep­re­sents a won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity for our young and de­vel­op­ing Aus­tralian team of 18 ath­letes to gain in­valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence with some of the best ath­letes in the world in their sports,” said Coates.

The Aus­tralian De­part­ment of For­eign Af­fairs and Trade was also con­tacted for com­ment. A spokesper­son said that as the AOC is a non­govern­ment body, the de­part­ment “does not par­tic­i­pate in its de­ci­sion­mak­ing”. The spokesper­son added that Aus­tralia had raised con­cerns dur­ing Turk­menistan’s last ap­pear­ance be­fore the United Nations’ hu­man rights fo­rum and would do so again at the next op­por­tu­nity.

Prepa­ra­tions for the Games have co­in­cided with fur­ther re­pres­sion. HRW and the Turk­men Ini­tia­tive for Hu­man Rights (TIHR) have re­ported the mass de­mo­li­tion of homes as part of an ur­ban re­newal project, with no more than nom­i­nal com­pen­sa­tion for res­i­dents. “The Games will last all of 10 days but peo­ple left with in­ad­e­quate or no hous­ing will suf­fer for years to come,” TIHR’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Farid Tuh­batillin, said re­cently.

Hu­man rights groups have also ob­served re­newed at­tempts to con­trol public life. “We might have thought Turk­menistan could not get more re­pres­sive but, as th­ese Games draw near, the gov­ern­ment is tight­en­ing the screws even fur­ther,” says HRW’s Den­ber. “The gov­ern­ment deeply fear what will hap­pen when Turk­men come into con­tact with for­eign­ers. They worry that the gov­ern­ment’s se­crets about how re­pres­sive it is and how poor the so­cial con­di­tions are will sud­denly spill out. It is do­ing ev­ery­thing to pre­vent that from hap­pen­ing.”

Lo­cal sources have re­ported that Ash­ga­bat has in ef­fect been sealed off from the re­main­der of the coun­try, with only public trans­port and taxis per­mit­ted to en­ter the city. “Raids to iden­tify un­trust­wor­thy so­cial el­e­ments have been launched,” said Tuh­batillin, a former po­lit­i­cal pris­oner. “Po­lice are de­tain­ing pros­ti­tutes, the home­less and those suf­fer­ing from sub­stance abuse.” Cit­i­zens with crim­i­nal records have re­port­edly been banned from go­ing out­side.

The Guardian,the Ob­server’s sta­ble­mate, was ini­tially given ac­cred­i­ta­tion to cover the Games but 11 days be­fore the open­ing cer­e­mony it was re­voked on the grounds of “the over­whelm­ing re­sponse”. Re­peated re­quests to be re­in­stated went unan­swered by the Games’ or­gan­is­ers while the in­ter­ven­tion of the Bri­tish em­bassy in Turk­menistan was un­suc­cess­ful. The Guardian is aware other in­ter­na­tional me­dia out­lets have had their ac­cred­i­ta­tion re­voked in sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances.

The Olympic Coun­cil of Asia (OCA) and each par­tic­i­pat­ing Na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee are recog­nised by the IOC, whose char­ter re­quires the or­gan­i­sa­tion to take “all nec­es­sary steps in or­der to en­sure the fullest coverage by the dif­fer­ent me­dia”. In­deed last year the IOC in­tro­duced an on­line mech­a­nism for jour­nal­ists to re­port vi­o­la­tions of press free­dom.

Re­peated re­quests have been made to the OCA as to how host­ing the Games in Turk­menistan and the re­vo­ca­tion of me­dia ac­cred­i­ta­tion were con­sis­tent with the char­ter, but re­ceived no re­sponse. An IOC spokesper­son sought to shift re­spon­si­bil­ity: “The Asian In­door and Mar­tial Arts Games are an in­de­pen­dent sport­ing event that does not fall un­der the ju­ris­dic­tion of the IOC.”

Den­ber said: “HRW has sent five let­ters to the OCA since 2016, and it has not replied to a sin­gle one. The OCA is a mem­ber of the IOC and is ob­li­gated to up­hold the prin­ci­ples of the Olympic Char­ter. In­stead, by its si­lence, the OCA is ac­cept­ing the com­plete per­ver­sion of the Olympic val­ues.”

The in­ter­sec­tion be­tween sport and pol­i­tics has a long his­tory; the IOC founder, Pierre de Cou­bertin, hoped that the mod­ern Games would im­prove po­lit­i­cal re­la­tions be­tween states. While the IOC may pro­fess that its events are free of po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence, re­cent Olympics in China and Brazil be­lied such claims. With foot­ball’s next two World Cups in Rus­sia and Qatar re­spec­tively and Bei­jing host­ing the 2022 Win­ter Olympics, sport is in a new era of politi­ci­sa­tion – af­ter al­most three decades of rel­a­tive post cold war neu­tral­ity. The at­trac­tion of th­ese mega events to such nations is ob­vi­ous.

“Turk­menistan is host­ing th­ese Games to boost its in­ter­na­tional pres­tige,” says HRW’s Den­ber. “Turk­menistan has been a closed coun­try for many years and some in the gov­ern­ment be­lieve this will lead to in­ter­na­tional pres­tige, which may in turn im­prove the gov­ern­ment’s do­mes­tic le­git­i­macy.” The Turk­men ex­ile Tuh­batillin said bluntly: “Any dic­ta­to­rial regime wants to show the world its pos­i­tive as­pects.”

There may also be fi­nan­cial mo­tives for Turk­menistan’s host­ing of the Games. “In a highly cor­rupted regime, the con­struc­tion of fa­cil­i­ties for this sport­ing event con­sti­tutes a source of bribes for the Turk­men gov­ern­ment,” says Pro­fes­sor Se­bastien Pey­rouse of Ge­orge Washington Univer­sity. “The prepa­ra­tion of th­ese Games has been a new and con­sid­er­able source of per­sonal en­rich­ment for the pres­i­dent and his en­tourage.” Sev­eral of the Games’ ma­jor in­fra­struc­ture projects were awarded to a Turk­ish con­struc­tion com­pany with close ties to Berdy­mukhame­dov.

With fewer coun­tries in­ter­ested in host­ing such ex­pen­sive events – wit­ness the care­fully staged-man­aged process that gave Paris and Los An­ge­les the 2024 and 2028 Olympics re­spec­tively – this may not be the last time Ash­ga­bat hosts a ma­jor sport­ing ex­trav­a­ganza. The IOC and its brethren are in­creas­ingly des­per­ate for wealthy nations will­ing to spend bil­lions for lit­tle fi­nan­cial re­turn, and triv­ial con­cerns such as hu­man rights are be­com­ing even less rel­e­vant.

As North Korea con­tin­ues to fire rock­ets over Ja­pan, its cen­tral Asian equiv­a­lent – the com­par­i­son is com­mon – is stag­ing a quirky sport­ing event that is less likely to reg­is­ter in the in­ter­na­tional con­scious­ness. Even at higher pro­file events, such as the Qatar 2022 World Cup, re­port­ing about hu­man rights will even­tu­ally sub­side and at­ten­tion switch to the pitch. While spec­ta­tors re­main trans­fixed by the sport­ing ac­tion, the IOC, OCA, Fifa and other opaque sport­ing in­sti­tu­tions will con­tinue to award their events to dis­taste­ful regimes.

“Ev­ery state has a de­gree of re­spon­si­bil­ity when it sends its rep­re­sen­ta­tives to a coun­try where hu­man rights are worth noth­ing,” im­plored the Turk­men ac­tivist Rus­lan My­atiev. The IOC, too, must share the blame. Other­wise – 2032 Olympics in Ash­ga­bat, any­one?

Turk­menistan: a brief his­tory

Con­sist­ing of vast swaths of desert be­tween the Caspian Sea and bor­ders with Kaza­khstan, Uzbek­istan, Afghanistan and Iran, Turk­menistan has long been a wild fron­tier. Turk­men tribes in­flicted heavy de­feats on Rus­sian forces dur­ing the 1800s, and were the last of the Cen­tral Asian eth­nic­i­ties to be brought un­der Moscow’s con­trol. Un­til the end of the Soviet era in 1991, Turk­menistan was tightly gov­erned by the cen­tral ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Newly in­de­pen­dent Turk­menistan was ruled with an iron fist by Sa­parmu­rat Niya­zov, who styled him­self as Turk­men­bashi (“fa­ther of the Turk­men”) and re­named the days of the week af­ter rel­a­tives. While the iso­la­tion­ist Niya­zov quickly de­vel­oped an in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion for his ec­cen­tric­i­ties, which ranged from in­stalling a golden statue in his im­age that ro­tated with the sun to build­ing a pen­guin sanc­tu­ary in the desert, his quirks ob­scured bru­tal re­pres­sion.

Niya­zov’s death in 2006 fa­cil­i­tated the rise of Gur­ban­guly Berdy­mukhame­dov, who ac­ceded to the pres­i­dency early the fol­low­ing year. While ob­servers were ini­tially heart­ened by sug­ges­tions that Turk­menistan would shed its iso­la­tion­ist past, Berdy­mukhame­dov has con­sol­i­dated power and main­tained the sta­tus quo. Turk­menistan’s ap­pear­ances in in­ter­na­tional re­port­ing re­main largely lim­ited to quirky sto­ries, whether a new air­port de­signed to han­dle 17 mil­lion pas­sen­gers per year (an­nual vis­i­tor num­bers in 2015 were just 105,000) or pro­pa­ganda footage of Berdy­mukhame­dov in his ac­tion man guise.

De­spite Turk­menistan’s hu­man rights record, it has largely been ig­nored by West­ern gov­ern­ments. “Turk­menistan (and Cen­tral Asia) is not a strate­gic re­gion for the West,” said Pro­fes­sor Se­bastien Pey­rouse. “The im­pact of the lim­ited for­eign pres­sure that has been ex­erted is weak­ened by ri­val in­ter­ests, par­tic­u­larly those seek­ing to de­velop eco­nomic re­la­tions with Turk­menistan.” The Euro­pean Union is ex­pected to soon rat­ify a part­ner­ship agree­ment with Turk­menistan, hu­man rights record not­with­stand­ing.

The Asian In­door and Mar­tial Arts Games is the van­ity project of the Turk­men leader Gur­ban­guly Berdy­mukhame­dov, who has di­verted £3.74bn on in­fra­struc­ture for the event. Com­pos­ite: Alamy Stock Photo; TASS via Getty Images; im­ageBROKER/Alamy Stock Photo; AFP/Getty Images

Ash­ga­bat, which will host the Games, has the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of mar­ble build­ings in the world. Pho­to­graph: Arthur Greenberg/Alamy Stock Photo

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