The study finds that Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan have made huge strides in reducing child malnutrition. It singles out Uzbekistan (alongside Angola) as one of “two priority countries that have made the fastest progress in reducing child malnutrition – both cut stunting rates in half in about 10 years.”
Uzbekistan topped the list of states that have made the greatest strides. Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan came fifth and sixth respectively.
As The Economist pointed out, half of the top six success stories identified by Save the Children are in Central Asia (while number six is North Korea). “This finding is – how can one put it politely? – counter-intuitive,” The Economist commented.
“Number one on the list is Uzbekistan, a vicious dictatorship which imprisons political opponents and has been the site of mass killings,” it continued, while Turkmenistan “had for many years one of the world’s stranger dictators [Saparmurat Niyazov] who renamed the days of the week after himself and his family.” (Turkmenistan is still run by a dictator who is fostering his own personality cult.)
The pages of Turkmenistan's newspapers have been filled in the past with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's exploits in the saddle, his nimble handling of a speedboat on the Caspian Sea, his driving skills in zippy karts and rally trucks, and lengthy rides by bicycle.
Marking another precedent, Berdymukhamedov last week became the first person to go fishing on the seven-kilometer artificial river at the Avaza tourist resort boondoggle.
The river, which was built a couple of years ago by Turkish companies Polimeks and Ickale, is in truth more a canal than anything. It measures 70 meters wide and five meters deep, and is used for gentle cruising by small- and medium-sized boats.
And now, Berdymukhamedov, who never misses an opportunity to show off his devotion to clean living, is reported by state media to be fond of angling at the site. The presenter of a weekly news summary on May 6 provided more details:
In the second half of the day, the president took a stroll on the banks of the River Avaza, which has become a top attraction at the world-class international resort taking shape on the shores of the Caspian Sea. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was enchanted by the beauty of this extraordinary natural spot, which excels itself for its health-giving properties, and captures the breeze blowing in from the sea and river as well as the air suffused with the fragrance of the Karakum Desert's flora. During his walk, the leader of the nation cast his bait into the River Avaza, and after some time he reeled in a fish.
Television footage showed the president standing up, rod in hand, and then sitting on a stool and reeling in a fish some 30-40 centimeters long. The report then cut away to a bucket appearing to show a handful of fish he had caught earlier.
But in some respects, Berdymukhamedov proves to have a humane streak toward those detained in an uncomfortable space against their will. And so the fish were released.
In the absence of reliable information about the most isolated of the Central Asian states, Turkmenistan observers are often forced to sift through unsubstantiated rumors. A recent report by the opposition website Gundogar.org provides plenty of these, alleging preferential treatment by authorities to prop up the business interests of the president’s family.
The author gives no indication of his sources. This may be necessary to protect them. On the other hand, it makes it impossible to distinguish truthful information from exaggeration and hearsay.
Nepotism is no shocker in a Central Asian dictatorship. In this case, the most brazen examples given by Gundogar involve Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s son Serder. The website alleges the younger Berdymukhamedov, supposedly something of a party animal, is trying to seize businesses belonging to the son of the late President Saparmurat Niyazov (The “Turkmenbashi”), Murad.
Relatives of the Protector [President Berdymukhamedov’s chosen moniker] are trying (with some success) to get their hands on Murad’s business. After his monopoly on trade in tobacco and alcohol products was dismantled late last year, in February, Berdymukhamedov’s son Serdar, eager to expand its hotel business, demanded Murad give him the Nisa Hotel, located opposite the presidential palace, for almost nothing. However, the son of the ex-president refused, saying the hotel is the legacy of his late father.
After this, irritated by the gall "of this upstart," President Berdymukhamedov issued a decree amending the architectural plan of the street where the Nisa Hotel is situated. As a result, in late February, under the pretext of ensuring the head of state’s security, the hotel was classified as subject to demolition.
The Protector says, "Head for the Racetrack." (From an official 2011 calendar.)
It’s April in Turkmenistan, so horse fever is in the air.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s beloved Horse Day is being celebrated on the last Sunday of the month, and so officials of all stripes are being strongly encouraged to head down to the races this weekend.
As the Chronicles of Turkmenistan reports, students from high and middle school are also being forced to turn up at the hippodrome. Lest anybody think nobody is checking, people in Ashgabat say that failure to comply by those instructions last Sunday prompted concerned queries.
In case the races weren’t enough, state newspaper Neutralny Turkmenistan has over the past few days been printing impassioned verse celebrating the virtues of the equine beast and the country’s pre-eminent jockey: Berdymukhamedov, aka Arkadag (The Protector).
Here are a couple of stanzas from “Akhan,” by People’s Writer Gozel Shagulyeva:
How gracefully you pranced, Akhan!
By your stature you charm me!
You have become a symbol of the era of Arkadag.
What playfulness my Akhan.
By Arkadag you were adopted,
And a symbol of his greatness you have become.
You, beauty of beauties, have soaked up of the fragrance of spring,
Your movements, a pleasure to the eye,
The admiring gaze cannot love you enough.
For the uninitiated, Akhan is a star horse at the presidential stables and is held up as an exemplary descendant of the original specimen of Turkmenistan’s prized Akhal-Teke breed. The poem, published on April 24, is illustrated with a picture of the white steed himself gracefully galloping through hills specked with poppies.
The Red Cross has paid a rare visit to a Turkmen prison. A delegation “acquainted itself” with one of the Interior Ministry’s detention centers last week, the International Committee of the Red Cross said in an April 10 statement. The ICRC mission, which included a doctor, also visited the site of a prison under construction.
The statement offered few details, but Reuters reported that this is the first time Ashgabat has allowed a Red Cross delegation into a prison since Turkmenistan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Last July, a team from the Red Cross visited a prison medical facility.
"These visits are a stage in Turkmenistan's many-sided cooperation with the ICRC," the statement said.
The Associated Press said the visit “appears to represent a breakthrough” in the reclusive and authoritarian country. “Turkmenistan’s authoritarian government has long been criticized for refusing international access to inmates in detention and prison.”
Foreign-based Turkmen rights activists say the country’s jails are overcrowded and that disease is rife. Authorities are believed to routinely imprison dissidents.
A 2010 report by foreign-based Turkmenistan’s Independent Lawyers Association and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights estimated that there were around 8,100 inmates in the countries at the time. The exact number fluctuates considerably, however, due to periodic widespread amnesties and no official figures are made available
Turkmenistan is developing its first indigenous coast guard ship, part of the country's effort to protect its Caspian shore, state media reported. There were very few details given in this account on Turkmenistan's official government website, which at the very end of a long report about President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's visit to a military unit in Ashgabat:
Chief of the State Border Guard Service M. Yslamov presented the model of the Arkadag patrol ship – the first vessel built in Turkmenistan to the President.
Arkadag, incidentally, means "Protector" and is the new honorific that has been given to Berdimukhammedov, in the same fashion that his predecessor was named Turkmenbashi, or "Leader of the Turkmen," which now happens to be also the name of the country's major Caspian port and apparent future site of its naval headquarters.
(And yes, this was actually almost two months ago, but it's been barely reported and new to The Bug Pit. This weekend, of course, Berdimukhammedov was engaged with a different sort of vehicle, winning a car race.)
This follows Turkmenistan's quiet move last year to buy two Turkish fast patrol boats, and the decision to establish a naval academy in Turkmenbashi. (He also recently got a tour of a Turkish coast guard vessel with his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul.)
Turkmenistan has refused to extend the visas of half a dozen Peace Corps volunteers who had been in the country for two years, but has not (yet?) booted the program out of the country, as has happened in other parts of the former Soviet Union. An official at the US Embassy in Ashgabat confirms that 18 volunteers continue to work in all five of the country’s regions.
“Six US Peace Corps Volunteers departed Turkmenistan at the end of March 2012. They departed after 24 months in Turkmenistan, but a few months earlier than originally scheduled because their visas were not extended,” the official wrote on April 3 in reply to emailed questions. “Peace Corps leadership and the US Embassy leadership are in an on-going dialogue with the Turkmen government about the future of the program, including its size and scope.”
The Peace Corps program in Turkmenistan, which has seen 750 volunteers rotate through since September 1993, has had its fair share of visa problems, delays, and other uncertainties in the last few years, so closure of the program would not come as a complete surprise to Central Asia watchers.
Indeed, it would fit into a larger trend. Kazakhstan last year abruptly closed its Peace Corps program, citing its “great progress” in development as a reason it no longer needed young American volunteers teaching health, business development and English, and providing information about the United States. Volunteers in Kazakhstan also circulated reports, as EurasiaNet.org wrote at the time, of “sexual assaults, the threat of terrorism, and an uncomfortable operating environment, in which allegations of espionage have been aired in the mass media.”
Independent mathematicians and political scientists agree: Three times zero equals, well, zero.
Several months ago, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov suggested he is tired of running the only political party in Turkmenistan. After winning reelection to a second five-year term in February, he instructed his government to see about the development of parties in addition to his Democratic Party.
"The creation of a multi-party system in Turkmenistan corresponds with our aims to democratize society and undertake major social reforms," state television quoted Berdymukhamedov as saying.
Token alternative parties are employed in neighboring countries such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to present a (generally unconvincing) democratic façade. But, as in those cases, few believe Berdymukhamedov, who has bestowed upon himself the title Arkadag – “The Patron,” or “The Protector” – has any intention of ceding an ounce of his absolute power.
"This could signal the beginning of managed democracy, but the rigid nature of the current system and lack of political opposition makes it unlikely these parties could pursue independent agendas," Eurasia Group analyst Gemma Ferst told Reuters.
In the Soviet Union, March 8 meant gifts for women and some heavy drinking. In post-Soviet Turkmenistan, March 8 means gifts for women and more glory to the president (and maybe a bit of drinking, too).
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has decreed that, for the fourth year, all women in Turkmenistan shall receive 40 manats (about $14) in cash to mark International Women’s Day on March 8. Celebrations are to be “well organized,” the president has said.
International Women’s Day, a popular public holiday in the Soviet Union that dates back to equal rights movements in the early 20th century, continues to be important throughout the post-Soviet successor countries. It is something of a cross between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.
But this year in Turkmenistan, one man is being celebrated on March 8 as well, according to the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a news site run by the exiled Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights.
A sculpture of Berdymukhamedov on a horse is the centerpiece of an exhibition of flowers in Ashgabat entitled, “Flowers as Sublime as a Woman’s Soul,” offering yet another example of the persistent insertion of the president into every aspect of public life. On March 7, a gala concert was scheduled at Ashgabat’s Palace of Happiness, entitled, “Glory to the Protector, the hero who gave the people happiness,” referring to the president by his moniker.
Goodbye, “Era of Rebirth.” Since President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s crushing election victory earlier this month, Turkmenistan is now entering the “Era of Supreme Happiness of the Stable State.”
Life is good, reports state media.
The president’s uplifting mantra heralds “a new stage in the development of the country,” AFP cites the government Neutral Turkmenistan daily as reporting.
The slogan is a "call for our future achievements and great deeds," [the paper] added.
Berdymukhamedov was sworn in for a second term on February 17 after winning over 97 percent of the vote in elections in which his seven rival candidates appeared only too happy to let him win.
Turkmenistan is fond of giving names to periods in its post-Soviet history -- the rule of Berdymukhamedov's eccentric predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov is now known as the "golden age of the Turkmen.”
Berdymukhamedov's first term in office after Niyazov's death was known as the "era of rebirth" as he dismantled the most outrageous excesses of his predecessor, who built a revolving golden statue of himself in the capital.
The Soviets were perhaps a little smarter with their sloagans, keeping the ideal (Communist utopia) just beyond reach. Turkmen officials may struggle to come up with something better than “supreme happiness” next time Berdymukhamedov is reelected.