President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s personality cult has so saturated Turkmenistan that people seem to be fed up with purchasing dictator memorabilia. Sluggish demand for calendars featuring portraits of the president (month after month) is reportedly forcing traders to raise their prices in a bid to minimize losses.
The Chronicles of Turkmenistan reports that this year’s version of the calendar featuring Berdymukhamedov striking a pose on each page have not been selling well. The Chronicles suggests the rising price is further damping demand: For one version of the calendars, the price has risen by 25 percent year-on-year, from 45 manats (approximately $16) to 56 manats ($20).
"They are bought only by bureaucrats and businessmen who keep them in their offices to show their loyalty to the president," the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a website run by exiles in Vienna, explained.
Despite losses, the state-run publisher is still printing desk and wall calendars – along with other mementos including giant posters and icon-like charms for car dashboards – because "propaganda is more important than profit in Turkmenistan.”
When you think of cotton and forced labor in Central Asia, you probably think of Uzbekistan. But a new report offers a reminder that Turkmenistan continues to force thousands of citizens into the cotton fields each autumn against their will.
On January 21, Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) released its assessment of the 2013 cotton harvest (by email): “Tens of thousands” of Turkmen, many of them public sector employees, were forced into the fields during the harvest. "Forced labor is still widely practiced throughout the country," the report – authored in collaboration with the Cotton Campaign, an international advocacy group – said.
The findings support reporting last autumn from Radio Free Europe’s Turkmen Service, which said that teachers were shepherding their students to the cotton fields on an "unprecedented" scale, with girls as young as 10 spotted picking cotton.
ATN describes a feudal system wherein government officials lease cotton plots from the state and then force their underlings to perform the manual labor. Like in neighboring Uzbekistan, the farmers (in this case the officials) then sell their harvest to the government at low prices. The government then sells the raw cotton abroad at market prices, says ATN:
We have information that shows that in the majority of cases, when the regional employees of the social sector are used as cheap laborers, the land is owned not by local farmers, but by high-ranking state or regional officials. These officials rent out land under the names of their wives, children, other family members, etc., however they do absolutely nothing by way of harvesting cotton on their land; many of these officials do not even live on this land or even in the region where the land is leased. [...]
Turkmenistan’s copious reserves of natural gas have long afforded residents an unusual luxury: free gas for cooking and heating their homes. But the subsidy encourages waste, which is encapsulated in an anecdote wherein a Turkmen family never bothers turning the gas stove off because it has to pay for matches.
Unsurprisingly, the waste is expensive, perhaps costing the nation of 5 million up to $5 billion a year. So Turkmenistan’s strongman president says homes should be fit with gas meters and consumers will have to start paying.
Speaking at a government meeting on January 17, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov called on local journalists to run a series of television programs and publications on conserving gas, Turkmen state television reported.
"The installation of the meters will allow people to economically consume natural gas, while the maximum payment for using the gas will not create difficulties for the population, for each family," the Associated Press quoted Berdymukhamedov as saying. From AP:
The move comes in the wake of signs that Berdymukhamedov's authoritarian government sees the subsidized domestic energy market as too heavy an economic burden, and is making profitable energy exports a bigger priority. […]
The government has made it clear in recent months the domestic subsidies are too costly. At a conference in October attended by Berdymukhamedov, one delegate publicly announced that free gas to the country's citizens cost Turkmenistan $5 million each year.
Neither Berdymukhamedov nor his government offered any clarification about when the changes would take effect or how much consumers would be charged.
Authoritarian Turkmenistan has announced results of the country's December 15 parliamentary elections, which offered a total lack of opposition to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s stronghold on power.
According to results released late December 18 by Turkmenistan's Central Electoral Commission, the pro-presidential Democratic Party won 47 of 125 seats up for grabs in the rubber-stamp parliament. The new Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, which was founded on the president’s orders last year, won 14. Trade unions won 33 and women's groups 16, the state-run TDH news agency reported.
This was billed as Turkmenistan's first “multi-party” election, since Ashgabat allowed a second political party to field candidates. But the vote did not offer a genuine choice because all contenders were carefully vetted to ensure loyalty to Berdymukhamedov, who tolerates no dissent and rules with absolute authority over the gas-rich nation of 5 million.
Some may wonder why bother holding an election under such restrictions, but the carefully stage-managed performance offers a veneer of legitimacy to what is arguably one of the world’s few remaining totalitarian states.
With a population just more than five million people, Turkmenistan is an oil and natural-gas rich Central Asian country wedged against the Caspian Sea between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. On the surface, the country appears wealthy with Turkmenistanis provided free gas, water, and electricity. The subsidized price of oil is around $0.20 per liter.
Former President Saparmurat Niyazov, who branded himself the father of all Turkmen, described the 21st century as the Golden Age (Altyn Asyr) for Turkmen people. After its independence from the Soviet Union, the country’s capital Ashgabat was considered a showcase of the amazing progress and richness of Turkmenistan.
Yet behind this apparent abundance another face shows very different conditions for a bulk of the Turkmen population, who live in poverty and poor conditions. This other side of the country – almost 190,000 square miles with 80 percent covered by the Karakum Desert – lives submerged in emptiness, a feeling that fills the landscape of rural Turkmenistan.
Ricard Altés Molina is a freelance photojournalist based in Barcelona.
Though you wouldn’t know it looking at how Russia treats activists who protest oil drilling in the fragile Arctic, Moscow has a soft spot for the environment – when it’s politically expedient.
Days after a European Union representative said Brussels is moving forward with plans to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan across the bottom of the Caspian Sea, a senior Russian official said Moscow is concerned about the effect on the Caspian’s “extremely sensitive ecosystem.”
Igor Bratchikov, the Russian president's special envoy for the delimitation and demarcation of borders with CIS states, also told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency on November 22 that the EU plans are an "interference in Caspian affairs.”
Bratchikov said that while constructing a trans-Caspian pipeline "it would be thoughtless and ruinous not to take environmental factors into account."
"The consequences of any incident would be catastrophic for the extremely sensitive ecosystem of the Caspian Sea," Bratchikov said. "Moreover, it is not Europeans or Americans, but the littoral states that would have to solve [problems] in case of a disaster."
The EU official, Denis Daniilidis, said the draft agreement, which he expects Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to sign later this year, ensures that any pipeline adheres to the "highest environmental standards."
A long-stalled project to deliver Turkmen gas to Europe is again in the spotlight after a European Union official said the idea remains on the table.
Denis Daniilidis, the head of the EU mission in Ashgabat, told an oil and gas conference in the Turkmen capital on November 19 that negotiators are finalizing a deal to construct a pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea, bypassing Russia, Russia's RIA Novosti news agency reported.
According to the diplomat, negotiators are working on "some outstanding issues,” RIA said. The EU, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan will sign an agreement on related environmental issues this year, he added.
The trans-Caspian pipeline project is part of the EU-sponsored Southern Corridor that would deliver natural gas from Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East to Europe while easing Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. Russia and Iran oppose the construction of any pipeline across the Caspian Sea, citing the unresolved status of the sea and maritime borders. But both have done little in 22 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union to remedy the issue, and both have been accused of creating obstacles to alternative energy corridors.
Turkmenistan has chosen a privately made US rocket to launch its first satellite, an American official has said.
US ambassador to Turkmenistan Robert Patterson told a Turkmen-US business forum on November 12 that the telecoms satellite would travel aboard a Falcon 9 rocket made by California-based SpaceX in late 2014, Russia's RIA Novosti news agency reported.
French firm Thales Alenia Space is designing the satellite and training specialists from Turkmenistan’s National Space Agency, which was set up up in 2011, RIA Novosti said.
The satellite is expected to provide broadcasting, Internet and telephone communication and video conferencing services. Internet and mobile communications are tightly controlled in the gas-rich authoritarian country.
If the project is successful, Turkmenistan will be the second nation in Central Asia to build and launch its own satellite. Neighboring Kazakhstan launched a Russian-made KazSat satellite in 2006 but lost communications with it in 2008. In 2011, it launched the KazSat-2 satellite, designed by Russia and equipped by France.
As RIA Novosti points out, though this is Turkmenistan’s first satellite, in 2005 it launched a copy of the former president’s soporific spiritual guide, the Rukhnama, into space aboard a Russian rocket.
Presidents Alexander Lukashenko and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat. (photo: press service of the president of Belarus)
Belarus will help build a factory for drone aircraft in Turkmenistan, the two countries announced during a visit by President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko to the Central Asian country:
The unmanned aerial vehicles are needed for Turkmenistan “to monitor its territory, its borders and drug-trafficking,” Lukashenko said after a meeting with his Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
From Belarus's perspective, this would appear to be part of a recent effort to take advantage of its substantial defense insustry to set up joint ventures in other countries, including Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.
This is not Turkmenistan's first acquisition of drones: in 2009, it bought a number of small tactical UAVs from Russian company Zala Aero to be "operated by special units of Ministry of Internal Affairs of Turkmenistan to provide support in surveillance missions and on counterterrorist operations." But this new venture would appear to be the first time that Turkmenistan itself is building drones -- and indeed, almost any defense equipment at all. Turkmenistan has no defense industry to speak of, and the fact that it is trying to start out with something so flashy as drones is suggestive of a tendency that some have noticed in Turkmenistan's military buildup, that it is motivated as much by a drive for prestige as by genuine operational needs.
Turkmenistan’s chief health fanatic led by example on this year’s state-wide Day of Health, state television footage shows, dispelling opposition reports the omnipotent president is suffering health problems.
State-run television showed Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov riding a horse, cycling, playing volleyball and pumping iron on the November 2 holiday, Russia’s Mir TV reported.