Should U.S. Facilitate Tourism in Turkmenistan?

The Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) is a branch of the U.S. State Department. Since 2001, AFCP has granted millions of dollars to countries around the world, for conservation of historic religious and other structures and institutions. The Fund was established by Congress under Public Law 106-553 with administration by the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). The aim of AFCP was to create "a new approach to American public diplomacy... the Ambassador's Fund is the only cultural preservation program in the U.S. government to provide direct 'small grant' support to heritage preservation in less-developed countries." Some grants, however, are not small. Through ECA, AFCP has issued public reports on its grant awards since 2001.

The fiscal year 2011-12 -- with grants awarded in the first year and implemented in the second -- was the most recent for which AFCP produced a detailed accounting. The Fund stated then that from 2001 to 2012 AFCP made more than 700 grants to 120 countries. Added to this number, 52 grants were made in 2012, and 56 in 2013, for a pre-2014 total of at least 800 grants. A count of all recorded funds rendered a total for 2001-13 of $47,750,971.

AFCP monies are allocated all over the world, in Africa, the Americas, East Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Eurasia, the Middle East and North Africa, South and Central Asia, and the Americas. The most recent enumeration of countries eligible for AFCP grants was published in 2011-12 and includes 39 Muslim-majority states.

Among the countries where Islam is the leading faith, and where AFCP funds are dispensed, the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan stands out. Since 2001 Turkmenistan has received 12 grants for Islamic historical items - the largest number for any single Muslim country - totaling at least $777,666 (financial accounting was not provided by AFCP for 2011-12, when three grants of an Islamic-religious nature were made to Turkmenistan).

Those reported in numbers comprised: in 2001, $14,500 for the Dragon Mosque in the town of Annau, close to the capital, Ashgabat. During the fiscal year 2003-04, Turkmenistan was given $11,000 for the Abu Sakhyt Abul Khaira shrine. In FY 2005-06, Turkmenistan was twice favored, with $14,200 for the Sultan Turkesh Mausoleum in Konya Urgench, described by the State Department as "a famous Islamic monument," and $15,059, for the Ak-Saray-Ding Tower, denoted "a Muslim pilgrimage site." In FY 2006-7, Turkmenistan received $17,587, and then in FY 2007-8, $38,430 for conservation of Arabic, Farsi, and Turkmen manuscripts, which one may presume are mainly religious in nature. In FY 2008-9 $33,100 was given to Turkmenistan for the Shir Kebir Mashad-Ata mosque. For FY 2011-12, Turkmenistan was awarded undisclosed amounts for 8-9th c. C.E. earthen fortresses in the historic city of Merv, plus money for rehabilitation of the tomb of the 12th c. C.E. Persian Sufi Najmuddin Al-Kubrawi and for the town of Ismamyt-Ata, the latter described by AFCP as an "important sacred site for Turkmen, Uzbeks, and Kazakhs." In 2012, however, Turkmenistan was paid $595,000 more for work at the fortresses in Merv. In 2013, $38,780 was provided for the Seyit Jemalletdin mosque in Annau.

Other grants to Turkmenistan were not bestowed for Islamic assets. A total of at least $202,360 was paid out for seven non-religious grants to that country between 2001 and 2013. These included $14,696 in FY 2004-5 for preservation of Turkmen carpets. Two grants of $24,250 in FY 2006-7 and $14,500 in 2007-8 were made for conservation of a 2nd millennium B.C.E. site at Gonur Depe. In 2009-10 $38,400 was presented to the National Library of Turkmenistan for its collection of 19th and 20th century books. In 2011-12, Turkmenistan received an undisclosed amount for Zoroastrian fire temple panels at Mele Hayran. The year 2012 was bountiful for Turkmenistan thanks to ACFP "secular" grants as well as its payment for the Merv fortresses. The country was presented with $52,514 for preservation of folk music and $68,000 for rehabilitation of a 12th c. C.E. caravanserai, or merchants' court, at Darahatyn.

Throughout this period Turkmenistan was described by international human rights bodies as a leading violator of civil and personal freedoms. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan came under the rule of Saparmarat Niyazov (1940-2006), former chief of the local Communist apparatus. In his post-Communist mode, Niyazov titled himself "Türkmenbaşi" or "chief of the Turkmens." He produced a personal scripture in imitation of Mao Zedong and Mu'ammar Al-Qhadhafi, the Ruhnama or Book of the Spirit, and renamed months and days of the week to honor his family and his political conceptions. He reinforced strict Soviet-era control over media and political activity.

Niyazov's successor as dictator of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, removed some appurtenances of the Niyazov personality cult, but otherwise has maintained the country's extreme authoritarianism. In 2014, Ashgabat, the capital, continues to feature a gold statue of Niyazov that rotates to face the sun. The question thus remains: why should a regime so sharply different in values and norms from that of the U.S. benefit from 19 "cultural" grants? Of the AFCP grants to Muslim lands recorded in 2001-13, Turkmenistan for exceeded the more strategically-significant Pakistan and Afghanistan for the largest number of items, at 19 for Turkmenistan, nine for Pakistan and eight for Afghanistan.

Rehabilitation at Gonur Depe was undertaken in the interest of enhancing tourism. But should the U.S. enable "tyranny tourism" and other works of "cultural preservation" benefiting a notorious dictatorship in Turkmenistan?

[Research for this commentary was supported by the Middle East Forum Educational Fund.]