Turkmen President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov has by and large been able to get away with being cast in the reformer role, especially since not that many people have been paying attention.

The latest news is straining that impression now, however, especially with the Turkmen government wasting U.S. time and money.

Peace Corps, you shall not pass!

Peace Corps, you shall not pass!

On Friday, news emerged that Turkmenistan has taken to barring entry to Peace Corps volunteers, for reasons that remain utterly baffling. As Peace Corps country director Chris Leal told The Associated Press:

“We had the paperwork in place, and they were approved to come, but the day before they were due to leave the U.S., we received a diplomatic note from the embassy saying that they would be invited next year, but not for this year.”

Not much more seems to be clear beyond the fact that the Turkmen authorities saw fit to spring this surprise last minute.

This comes on the heels of the potentially even more disturbing story that has been unfolding for months; the Turkmen authorities’ decision to prevent students at the American University of Central Asia and the American University of Bulgaria from leaving the country (see here and here).

While the Peace Corps case is redolent of the kind of paranoid Turkmenbashi-style policies that one has long come to expect of Ashgabat, actually forbidding people from leaving their own country is beyond the pale.

"Oh, you're not going anywhere, young girl"

"Oh, you're not going anywhere, young girl"

As the U.S. Embassy in Turkmenistan noted in a recent statement protesting officials action to bar students from leaving via Ashgabat airport last month:

“As recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to leave his or her country and to return to his or her country.”

To the U.S. government’s credit, they have been candid in effectively calling out Turkmenistan for what it is; a violator of human rights.

And so much for Assistant Secretary Robert Blake’s surreal observation that “human rights is not as big an issue in Turkmenistan as it is in some of the other Central Asian countries.”

Well, Turkmenistan breaching human rights? So what, one might well be expected to retort. There is hardly anything surprising about this, especially against the backdrop of an increasingly sycophantic bureaucratic deference to Berdymukhamedov.

The issue is that, as usual, these Central Asian tin-pot dictators demand international respect, without being able to conduct themselves with a modicum of civility. Quite literally in Berdymukhamedov’s case.

In his recent meeting the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he is reported to have pressed on the two issues raised above. About the Peace Corps, he spoke highly, praising the valuable contribution they make to the country. On the students issue, he is supposed to have been receptive.

Yet the outcome in both areas could not have been more catastrophic. North of 200 Turkmen students will have their university careers possibly irreversibly ruined, while Peace Corps will be operating with one armed tied behind their back for at least the coming year.

Berdymukhamedov comes out of this as not just a petty dictator thug, which he is; but a dishonest and cowardly one too. At this rate, he will be making Niyazov look good.

The mystery here is what it is that has possessed the Turkmens to pursue this line of PR self-destruction. Evidently, Ashgabat feels confident enough of the fact that flagrant breaches of human rights and reversion to backward isolationism will not do excess damage to its commercial ties with international partners, including the West.

As nose-tweakings go, this is about as bad as it gets, and if the United States doesn’t take a firm position now, well, then it probably never will.