Prague, 4 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan is now nearing the halfway mark in President Saparmurad Niyazov's ambitious program called "10 Years of Stability."
The program, announced after independence from the USSR, was designed to resolve all the Central Asian country's economic and social problems within the next decade. Originally titled "10 Years of Prosperity," the name of the program quietly changed as it became evident that the expected gains in material well-being were not going to be easily achieved.
So how stands the state of the nation in terms of the program? President Niyazov, in a speech to high officials, noted that in important respects the situation has become not better, but much worse. And the president must bear considerable responsibility for that because of the nature of his regime.
In his speech, the text of which was published in January, the president referred to the country's pervasive corruption and inefficiency. He said that in the past year, Turkmenistan had to spend $800 million to import grain. He said that in five years of independence the country had paid out millions for modern farm equipment, and that it was better equipped than ever before but, he said, "We cannot get the needed harvest out of the soil".
And he added, more ominously, that it's unclear where the billions of manats invested in agriculture had gone, and that the new machines were "disappearing as though the earth had swallowed them".
On the score of efficiency, he went on to say that overall agricultural production last year was loss-making. Output officially valued at more than $1 million dollars had actually cost more than that -- namely almost $1 billion dollars -- to produce.
Which officials should be singled out for blame, the exasperated leader asked, suggesting that the number of corrupt officials was inexhaustible.
"What shall I do, they are all my men", said Niyazov. The president himself appoints all ministers, deputies, provincial leaders, judges and army leaders. They are answerable to him, and there are no "checks and balances" like an independent judiciary or free press.
But the President does not have the means to personally control so many officials. The result is that corruption runs unchecked, with appointees enriching themselves at the expense of the people.
Niyazov has worsened the problem by often taking a two-way approach which amounts to toleration. For instance, in February last year he accused 500 officials of falsely inflating cotton and grain production figures.
One of them was Gurban Orazov, governor of Mary province, who was accused also of making private gains through the falsification. Orazov -- the local head of Niyazov's Democratic Party -- lost his post, but he was soon appointed to another, albeit lesser one.
Neither he nor any of the other officials were prosecuted, and were later forgiven by the president on condition they pay back their gains.
On another occasion Niyazov openly stated that he would allow officials to keep their illegal private gains if they proved they were working for the overal benefit of the country and the people.
By contrast the ordinary people are treated harshly for minor crimes. In March last year, just after the Mary scandal, a citizen called Amansakhet Durdiev and two companions were given sentences of one and a half to three years jail for stealing some chickens from a neighbor's garden.
The situation is made worse by the complete lack of independent media which could point out injustices and anomalies. The number of newspapers has diminished sharply in the years since independence, and all remaining media have to rely on the government for financing. Some five years ago there were 70 newspapers, now there are only 15, and womens' magazines, sports journals, and childrens' magazines, among others, have ceased to exist.
Needless to say, there is no voice in the media for the opposition.
The London-based human rights organization Amnesty International has repeatedly warned of Turkmenistan's political climate, which it says stifles basic human rights.
Certainly political dissent is not tolerated. Participants in an anti-government rally in Ashghabat on July 12, 1995 were branded by Niyazov as hooligans and drug addicts. One of the rally's jailed organisers, Gulgeldi Annaniyazov, has recently had his jail term increased from 13 to 15 years. Amnesty International last month expressed concern for his safety.
Niyazov says there are no political prisoners at all in the country. Judging by official charge sheets, that may be true. But past events show that even minor political offenses are punished, even if the actual charges brought against individuals may appear unrelated.
For instance a professor of philology, Durdymukhammed Nuraliev, was asked by the ideology department of the Cabinet of Ministers to write an evaluation of the president's speeches. The professor however was unwilling to write a positive assessment. Thereafter he was accused of taking a bribe from one of his students, to the value of $15. He denied that charge, but was sentenced last year to five years' jail. After he served six months in prison he was released on Niyazov's orders.
In another instance, journalist Marat Durdiyev lost several positions and was sent to a psychiatric clinic for a month soon after he wrote an article in a Russian newspaper criticizing Turkmen government policy.
As Amnesty says, the government makes no secret of its disrespect for international human rights norms, arguing that certain individual freedoms can be sacrificed because they threaten the aims of the "10 Years of Stability" program.