The president of Turkmenistan has effected a major revamp among officials running the country’s economy in a desperate bid to emerge from a crisis provoked by low global energy commodity prices.
State media reported on April 10 that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov fired the Economy and Development Minister Eldash Sheripov, who had been in his post since July 2015.
Neutral Turkmenistan newspaper reported that other officials dismissed included Trade and Foreign Economic Relations Minister Bayar Abayev and the head of the tax service, Shatlyk Hummedov. They had been in their jobs for five years and two years, respectively.
Berdymukhamedov offered typically vague and ominous motivations for the dismissals.
“There are violations related to unauthorized and non-earmarked spending of budget funds, as well as an unjustifiable expansion in the ranks of management that is slowly evolving in the financial and economic system,” he said.
Without any firm details, it can only be assumed that this is an oblique reference to a problematic cocktail of corruption, nepotism and mismanagement in the departments in question.
In another sign of the grievous state of government’s finances, the long-promised scrapping of generous social benefits is also looming ever closer.
Berdymukhamedov said that the provision of free gas, water and electricity approved in the early post-independence period as a measure to “improve the social condition of the population” had lost its relevance.
“From an economic point of view this is no longer justifiable and it is preventing the transition to a market economy and imposing an additional burden on the budget,” the president said.
Screenshot of Turkmenistan state television showing what appears to be a Chinese HQ-9 air defense system during military exercises.
Turkmenistan showed off its newly acquired Chinese air defense systems during military exercises, confirming for the first time that the country has gotten some significant weaponry from Beijing.
Last year, sketchy media reports suggested that Turkmenistan (and Uzbekistan) had acquired Chinese HQ-9 air defense systems, potentially marking the entrance of China into the Central Asia military market hitherto dominated by Russia.
Now Turkmnenistan has aired footage of what appears to be an HQ-9 in action during its large-scale, ongoing military exercises. The HQ-9 was spotted by the Russian military blog BPMD amid the state TV coverage, visible at about 4:10 in the video below (which is also worth watching for its footage of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at the controls of a number of military vehicles, including a helicopter).
"The Russian government may not be entirely happy, but probably cannot do anything about it," Russian military expert Vasiliy Kashin told The Bug Pit after last year's reports of China's HQ-9 exports to Central Asia. "Central Asian countries started to diversify their military-technical cooperation long ago, and China is one of natural choices."
Turkmenistan's armed forces are conducting unprecedented large-scale, unannounced exercises, an indication of the growing importance the country's government is placing on its defense.
The exercises began "in the dead of night" between Friday and Saturday, on a personal command of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to his senior military and defense officials, according to an account in the official state news agency. They continued through Monday, with no indication when they might end.
Turkmenistan's government tends to be secretive about its military (as it is with most everything else) but there has been an unmistakeable emphasis in the past several years placed on acquiring new weaponry and modernizing its armed forces. Meanwhile, all the navies on the Caspian Sea (including Turkmenistan) have been steadily building up their navies, and Turkmenistan's border with Afghanistan has become increasingly unstable, with repeated skirmishes, incursions, and other bouts of instability on that border over the last three or so years.
All branches of Turkmenistan's military, including land, air, and naval forces, special operations and air defense, are involved in the exercise. The drills carried out included practicing air strikes against "enemy armed groups," anti-tank warfare, surveillance by drones, and naval surface-to-surface and surface-to-air fire "against various targets."
The president of Turkmenistan has in candid remarks admitted to the pervasive corruption hobbling the country’s energy sector, but his solutions appear so far limited mainly to the usual threats and targeted dismissals.
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said during a Cabinet meeting broadcast on television on March 5 that state auditors and prosecutors have recently been running checks on energy enterprises and uncovered irregularities “causing the government serious losses.”
Corruption has become a recurring theme in Turkmenistan as authorities seek to explain away the economic malaise gripping the country.
Berdymukhamedov said that former deputy prime minister Baymyrat Hojamuhammedov, who was dismissed from his role overseeing the energy sector for health reasons in November 2015, was directly involved in the corruption.
“After the investigations, he returned $1.5 million that he received in bribes from various people,” Berdymukhamedov said.
Also on March 5, the president fired the head of the State Statistics Committee, Akmyrat Mamedov, who stands accused of fiddling the figures to enable graft.
Anybody who has ever in good conscience scrutinised the sparse statistical information made available online by Turkmenistan’s authorities will have questioned their reliability years ago. And yet those are the same figures that international financial organisation invariably rely upon when formulating their rosy economic forecasts, which should probably raise some questions about their practices.
Mamedov has been in his job since March 2010.
Dismissals among senior economic officials have been coming fast and furious of late.
In February, Berdymukhamedov removed one of his key aides, Palvan Taganov, from his post, again for suspected wrongdoings in the oil and gas sector.
Turkmenistan’s recent rushed decision to declare war on delinquent landlords has backfired with embarrassing results and reportedly ended up with the ambassador of a friendly nation being cast out onto the street.
The story began on February 5, when President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov grumbled at a Cabinet meeting about the lack of regulation in the buy-to-let business.
On one hand, it was good that Turkmens have grown so affluent that they are able to buy multiple apartments, the president appeared to argue, but the government should be getting its cut too.
Berdymukhamedov criticized chiefs of police and local governments for failing to tackle the problem and demanded that a formal system be imposed for apartment rental, so as to bring the business into line with the law.
The hearts of apartment-owners will doubtless have sunk when he went on to insist that anybody renting apartment would, even for short stays, be obliged to obtain the dreaded propiska — the residency permit devised back in the days of the Russian Empire. Short-term propiskas have not until now been mandatory, not least since non-residents of the capital have found it impossible to get them.
Landlords will now have to register properly with the tax office. Presumably, most have until now been paid in cash and avoided mentioning their income to the authorities, although no data on the matter is readily available.
Top officials have been ordered to draw up an inventory of residential properties in the capital, Ashgabat, so the authorities can properly systematize the rental sector.
The president of Turkmenistan is braced to join the Central Asian club of potential leaders-for-life with proposed changes to the Constitution that will inevitably be approved in October.
Proposed amendments published in Neutral Turkmenistan newspaper on February 15 envision presidential terms being increased to seven years, from the current five, and the 70-year upper age limit for presidential candidates being scrapped.
Such revision to the Constitution are transparently intended to ensure former dentist President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, now 58 years old, can remain in situ as long as he is alive.
The next presidential election had been slated for 2017, but that date will now likely be pushed back to 2019.
Before the amendments can come into force, they will have to be subjected to a public discussion at the Council of Elders in the capital, Ashgabat, later this year. Those events are typically reserved for extolling the president and wild clapping in support of his policies, so the procedure is only a formality.
Berdymukhamedov’s successor was famously, of course, himself named leader-for-life in 1999. That life, as it turned out, wasn’t very long, since Saparmurat Niyazov died of a sudden heart attack in late 2006 at the age of 66.
There are other changes being proposed to the Constitution.
If the president cannot, for one reason or another, acquit his duties, then the role will pass to the speaker of parliament. Elections for a new leader will have to be held no later than 60 days, and the acting president is barred from standing. No changes to the Constitution will be permitted in that period.
A cargo train carrying a test shipment along the recently completed China-Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railway is bearing in on its final destination in a landmark event for Eurasian trade.
State media in Turkmenistan reported that the train, which departed from the Chinese city of Yiwu, just south of Shanghai, at the end of January covered 7,908 kilometers over nine days, and crossed the border into Iran on February 10.
The entire railroad extends around 10,000 kilometers and requires two weeks to cover, which is estimated to be around twice as fast as the sea route.
“The cargo, loaded with all kinds of consumer goods, traversed the Turkmen section in 28 hours, instead of two days, as had been expected. This significant reduction in travel time translates into substantial savings on transportation costs and makes the route more cost-effective,” state news agency TDH reported.
The overall route could, as its proponents argue, radically increase the efficiency in the transportation of goods from China’s eastern seaboard to markets in the Persian Gulf.
A final link in the mammoth railroad was put into place in December 2014 when the presidents of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran officially inaugurated a 930-kilometer line running from Ozen in western Kazakhstan through Turkmenistan to Gorgan in northwestern Iran. That sped up cargo transit between the countries by cutting 600 kilometers off the journey on the previously existing route from Beyneu in western Kazakhstan to Mashhad in northern Iran.
Days after being removed from his senior Cabinet post and his role as a key aide to Turkmenistan’s president, Palvan Taganov is reported to have been arrested.
Announcing the dismissal during the January 5 Cabinet meeting, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov listed multiple shortcomings by Taganov, including failure to contain corruption.
CA-News website went further on January 7, reporting that Taganov has been detained on unspecified charges.
Corruption has becoming a recurring public theme in Turkmenistan as authorities seek to explain away the increasingly apparent economic malaise gripping the country.
Taganov’s brief was evidently vast and he had access to the highest echelons of power paralleled by few others in Turkmenistan.
He was simultaneously appointed deputy prime minister and administrator of the presidential apparatus and Cabinet in September 2013. The following January, his role was slightly amended to put him in charge of trade and the state commodity and raw materials exchange.
Taganov was again named chief of the presidential administration in August 2015, replacing Shamuhammed Durdyliyev, who was moved over to deal energy, construction and utilities sectors. Durdyliyev’s primary brief has been to get the capital, Ashgabat, ready for the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in 2017, which are being touted as a international showcase for the country.
Taganov's control extended over the foreign economic relations, the chamber of industry and trade, and the union of industrialists and entrepreneurs.
So Berdymukhamedov’s criticisms suggests maladministration across a wide array of offices.
The people of Uzbekistan are apparently satisfied corruption is on the wane, while the president of Turkmenistan is indignant it is still rampant.
The “good news” first.
Podrobno.uz website reported on February 1 that a survey in Uzbekistan carried out by polling company Izhtimoy Fikr (Public Opinion) has found that experiences of corruption declined markedly from 2013 to 2014.
Izhtimoy Fikr is notorious for its almost comically unrealistic surveys, so the vat of salt should probably be taken with only a pinch of seriousness and perhaps only to understand the extent to which the government intends to embark on a serious fight against corruption.
Perceptions of corruption in the health care sector dropped from 37.7 percent to 25.5 percent, in education it went from 37.8 percent to 24.2 percent, and in the justice system from 24.3 percent to 14.6 percent, according to the poll.
The question “Is there corruption in Uzbekistan” yielded a 34 percent positive response in the latest query, compared to 36 percent in 2012 and 53 percent in 2011.
As many 74.5 percent of respondents believe the fight against corruption is being waged effectively. Leaving the best for last, Podrobno.uz reveals that Izhtimoiy Fikr’s survey found that 80 percent claimed that they have never been exposed to extortion or bribery.
Strong anecdotal evidence suggests the real number may well literally be zero.
Transparency International’s recently issued Corruption Perceptions Index 2015 shows Uzbekistan in 153rd place out of 165 countries listed, coming in just behind Zimbabwe.
Restrictions on the circulation of cash out of Turkmenistan have reportedly been extended to a service popularly used to make transfers to relatives abroad.
The foreign-based Alternative News of Turkmenistan reported earlier this month that Western Union branches in the country had limited transfers out of the country to just $300 per transaction. The payment could be made only in manat at the state-approved exchange rate, which is lower than the black market rate. Operations carried out with a credit card incurred an additional surcharge equivalent to 8 percent of the sum being sent.
The monthly limit on how much can be transferred was set at $1,000 per person.
Operations also required presenting various documentation, including the Soviet-vintage propiska and employment record book, which evidently reflects the authorities desire to monitor who is sending what, where and when.
Although strict, the apparently informal rules appear to have not done enough to stem the outflow of dollars.
Alternative News of Turkmenistan cited sources inside the country as saying Western Union has now introduced a new cap. Customers can no longer transfer amounts larger than their monthly salary.
If correct, the fact that people are believed to have been funneling more money out than they officially earn — presumably offloading their cash savings in the process — is a stark testament to mounting loss of trust in the domestic currency.