Turkmenistan has again found itself scraping the bottom of an international index.
Last week, the Business Insider website released its 2013 Misery Index, ranking 197 countries based on unemployment and inflation rates. Turkmenistan, with its 10 percent inflation and 60 percent unemployment, came fifth from last.
"Agriculture employs half the country's workforce but accounts for only eight percent of Turkmenistan's revenue. The country suffers from rampant corruption and mismanagement by its authoritarian government," Business Insider said. "And it isn't going to get any better."
But not everyone is feeling miserable. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov – who calls his current term the “Era of Supreme Happiness of the Stable State” – has ordered one of his palaces converted into apartments to be awarded to families who bear an eighth child by March 8, International Women’s Day, reports Russia's vesti.ru website.
International Women’s Day is a big deal across the former Soviet Union, though it’s not regularly linked to fertility. Berdymukhamedov’s predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, treated population growth in Turkmenistan as a priority, eyeing the country’s sparsely populated deserts as a lush breeding ground.
Following the adoption of Turkmenistan's first-ever media law earlier this year, Ashgabat appears to be inching toward the liberalization of its restrictive media market. But are the changes worth more than the paper they’re printed on?
Russia's Regnum news agency reports that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov – who likes to be called “The Protector” – has withdrawn his protection from most of the country's newspapers, which he used to own single-handedly. That’s because the new media law, which the president signed on January 4, bans the “monopolization of the media.”
Turkmenistan has long languished at the bottom of global media freedom rankings, so observers like Reporters Without Borders, the watchdog, feel a legal ban on media censorship means little.
Berdymukhamedov isn’t going too far. The country's Russian-language mouthpieces, “Turkmenistan” and “Neutral Turkmenistan,” may have acquired a new owner – The Cabinet of Ministers – but the president heads the Cabinet. “Nesil” (Young Generation) will now be published by the Magtymguly youth organization, “Watan” (Homeland) by a trade union, and “Mugallymlar Gazeti” (Teacher's Newspaper) by the Ministry of Education. Of course, these bodies are all loyal to the president, who wields absolute authority. And in case any journalist gets too many crazy ideas, all appointments at all media outlets are done by presidential decree, says Regnum.
Turkmenistan’s president is normally mad for horses. Right now, he’s just mad.
In a televised government meeting February 18, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov fired the head of the national state equine association, accusing him of a complete failure to develop the industry.
Over the period of Allanur Oraznazarov’s tenure at Turkmen Atlary (“Turkmen Horses”), the number of animals in state stables has consistently fallen, the president said. In 2011, the number fell by 64 and then by another 56 in 2012. Berdymukhamedov did not specify the size of Turkmenistan’s current horse stock.
The horse in question is, of course, Turkmenistan’s beloved Akhal-Teke breed, which has been subject of Berdymukhamedov’s undyingly passionate attention for many years.
The problem isn’t just their rearing, but also the following for equine events in the provinces. “The horse sport complexes built in the velayats are totally empty, there are no events taking place there,” Berdymukhamedov said.
He also complained about the quality of work in horse-rearing facilities, the poor standard of veterinary medicine, treatment and specialists. “That’s why our horse-breeders can’t take part in competitions abroad,” he said.
That is an interesting observation that sounds almost like an excuse for why the much-vaunted Akhal-Tekes have never been entered into international competition, despite claims that they are unmatched in all respects.
This is the first time that Berdymukhamedov has so baldly stated that the horse-rearing industry is in a state of disarray. It is a particularly crushing admission when it is considered that the sector is officially administered under the personal tutelage of the president as “a great horse estimator and connoisseur.”
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan likes to call his second term the “Era of Supreme Happiness of the Stable State” and refer to himself as “The Protector.” Some of his citizens might call themselves his “inmates.”
The Chronicles of Turkmenistan reports that secret blacklists barring certain individuals from leaving the country continue to exist, much as they did during the “Golden Age” of Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in office in late 2006.
The Chronicles website, run by Turkmen exiles in Vienna, says 48 Turkmen citizens were prevented from boarding Istanbul-, Dubai- and Moscow-bound flights on just one recent day. Despite having tickets and brand-new biometric passports, border guards told the grounded travelers on January 24 that they were banned from leaving the country. "However, no documents were produced to the frustrated passengers, nor reasons given for the ban on leaving," the website said.
When these would-be travellers sought explanations from the Border and Migration Service, they were sent to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of National Security. Both maintained they had nothing to do with the decision, said the report.
Unsuspecting Turkmen citizens often do not know that their names are on the secret blacklists until they attempt to pass through immigration. Others reportedly have been pulled off airplanes on the tarmac.
If vodka is your poison of choice and you live in Turkmenistan, you should now expect to start shelling out more money.
Since local media doesn’t report on such affairs, hopeful boozers only made the discovery upon visiting shops in recent days.
One shopkeeper in central Ashgabat, Toyly, said the prices went up on February 2. “Half-liter vodka bottles have gone up by $0.35, and 0.7-liter bottles are $0.50 more expensive,” he said.
As Toyly explained, the alcohol used to mix the vodka mainly comes from Ukraine, which has raised its prices. There has been no apparent impact on wine and cognac, however.
Vodka at Toyly’s shop ranges in price from the cheapo 0.45-liter “Arassa” at $2.50 through to the luxury “President” brand, which costs $34 for a 0.75-liter bottle.
Another shop in central Ashgabat with a broader selection stocked more than 10 different brands. There, a slightly larger bottle of “Arassa” costs $2.07, while the priciest brand is that including the portrait of the late President Saparmurat Niyazov available for up to $53.40.
Also available is 0.7-liter “Galkynysh” – Turkmen for Revival, the title used to describe the current era of rule under President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. Galkynysh initially went up to $10.52 and then mysteriously dropped by $0.07 the following day.
“All bottles contain the same alcohol, from Ukraine. It is the filtering that varies. ‘Galkynysh’ goes through double filtering, which is why it costs more than ‘Arassa,’” explained shopkeeper Bayram.
The rising prices have done little to contain enthusiasm for vodka.
A wedding is usually a special day for two people in love. But in the land of The Protector, three’s the charm.
Couples tying the knot in the famously overbearing state are now being forced to pose for their keepsake photo before a portrait of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported this week.
The website, run by Turkmen exiles in Vienna, says couples who want to register their marriage have to pay photographers at registry offices – known as Palaces of Happiness – for a photo album containing at least three photos of the newlyweds taken with a portrait of The Protector, as Berdymukhamedov likes to be known.
It is unknown whether the gimmick was dreamed up by registrars and photographers as a money-making scam or whether orders were received from on high to insert The Protector into every couple’s married life. But the report says the new requirement has appeared not only in the capital, Ashgabat, but also in other major towns.
Berdymukhamedov has slightly less of a reputation for eccentricity than his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, whose antics included building a giant golden statue of himself, which rotated with the sun, and renaming months after himself and his family. Yet Berdymukhamedov is no shrinking violet: Like his predecessor, who went by the title Turkmenbashi (“Head of the Turkmens”), all over the country The Protector has plastered photos of himself staring down upon his subjects. He even appears as a dashboard good-luck charm in taxicabs.
A new U.S. government report says that fuel for Afghanistan's security forces, paid for by the U.S., may include Iranian fuel in contravention of U.S. sanctions -- and implies that Turkmenistan may be to blame.
The report is by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a U.S. government oversight agency that investigates possible abuse of U.S. funds in Afghanistan. While Afghanistan gets a majority of its fuel supplies from neighboring Iran, for fuel that the U.S. buys -- which includes that for the security forces -- suppliers have to abide by U.S. regulations prohibiting commerce with Iran. The companies that buy the fuel are Afghan-owned, but most of the fuel comes from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, with lesser amounts coming from Russia and Uzbekistan. But, as the report notes, that fuel is often "blended" from different sources by the suppliers, and the oversight mechanisms that ensure that no Iranian oil is included are weak.
That there is no oversight is hardly surprising, but there is little positive evidence that the U.S. is actually buying Iranian oil. Still, the report does say that there is some suspicion, and it is directed at Turkmenistan:
According to SIGAR investigators, a fuel vendor in Afghanistan stated that Afghanistan’s neighboring countries to its west may be exporting blended fuel from various sources, including Iran....
In response to a draft of this report, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul stated that it is possible that if blending is taking place in Turkmenistan it could contain some Iranian fuel; however, it would be very unlikely that fuel imported from refiners in Russia and transitioned through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan would be blended with Iranian fuel prior to its import into Afghanistan.
Investors operating in three post-Soviet Central Asian republics face an “extreme risk” of having their businesses expropriated, according to a survey released last week in the UK.
Maplecroft, a Bath-based political risk consultancy, said on January 9 that it had found plenty of reasons to be wary of the business climate in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan after “evaluating the risk to business from discriminatory acts by the government that reduces ownership, control or rights of private investments either gradually or as a result of a single action.” Recent fits of resource nationalism in Kyrgyzstan -- where the Kumtor gold mine, operated by Toronto-based Centerra Gold, accounted for 12 percent of GDP in 2011 and more than half the country’s industrial output – and rampant authoritarianism in places like Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have led Maplecroft to rank these countries among the most risky in the world. Not far behind, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both fall in the “high risk” category.
If there is one country in Central Asia that might expect to be spared electricity woes, it should be Turkmenistan.
But a failure at a power plant in the eastern town of Mary over the New Year holiday has highlighted another area where reforms are urgently needed. The late-December failure knocked out half the plant’s capacity, leaving many in Turkmenistan’s eastern provinces without electricity. In Mary, the country’s fourth-largest city, power was provided only intermittently over a three-day period.
In the village of Farab, which lies just across the border from Bukhara, in Uzbekistan, local people prepared for the New Year without electricity, household gas or heating.
“Since a lot of kindergartens and schools weren’t heated, the children had to stay home, which people warmed with diesel-powered heaters,” said Farab resident Nasiba. “People were cooking in the street, some with firewood, some with small kerosene stoves, and the gas supply was so weak it took hours even to boil a kettle.”
The Mary power plant also creates export electricity for neighbors Afghanistan and Iran.
Afghanistan’s official Bakhtar news agency reported on a disruption in supplies to Herat Province in western Afghanistan, which, it said on January 2, had lasted two weeks already.
The crisis has caused heads to roll. Before the New Year, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov severely reprimanded the energy minister and fired the deputy head of the emergency situations committee.
On January 2, Berdymukhamedov fired Mary power plant chief Altymyrat Gurbangeldiyev. At the same government meeting, he instructed Energy Minister Myrat Artykov to travel to Mary to take all necessary measures to solve the issues. Artykov promised prompt action.
Throughout the former Soviet world, New Year’s is the time when Santa Claus – or Father Frost as he’s known in the Russian-speaking tradition – hands out presents. This year, Turkmenistan’s president played the role himself and gave his people the gift of cheap meat.
Freebies subsidized by the country’s natural-gas-generated revenues have long been a fixture of life in the country. For more than 10 years, Turkmens have received free water, household gas and rations of salt.
And now, in anticipation of 2013, butchers in Ashgabat have been selling 1 kilogram of meat for about $3.50 – that’s $2.50 lower than the normal price – triggering much excitement among buyers.
The government is in a constant battle with vendors over meat prices. Official prices shown in displays stand at $4.20 per kilo, although the real cost to buyers is actually $6. In food markets, as with the exchange rate for the Turkmen manat, there are often major discrepancies between official and real-life figures.
The meat discount follows an edict last week issued by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. In a Cabinet meeting on December 28, he instructed officials, including the trade minister and Ashgabat mayor, to “provide the capital and the regions with all required foodstuffs” to ensure the people of Turkmenistan spend their holidays in an upbeat mood.
For all the war-economy flavor of the injunction, the news was greeted with a surge of enthusiasm in Ashgabat.
On the morning of Saturday, December 29, the entrance was barred to the meat section at the city’s Tekinsky Bazaar, which led to the formation of a long line. That in turn drew unwanted attention from passersby.