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The First 40 Days: Turkmenistan's High Hopes And 'Great Distractions'

  • Bruce Pannier

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov

This year is bound to be a difficult one for Central Asia. The big question is: How bad can it get? I decided to follow events, as 2016 started, as closely as possible to see not only what was happening but also to pay special attention to how the individual publics responded and what measures each government would take. I chose to look at the first 40 days of the year, hoping to get a glimpse of where the five countries are heading.

Coming out of 2015, the situation in Turkmenistan had never been so uncertain. Dubbed the “hermit kingdom,” Turkmenistan’s government spent the time since 1991 independence isolating the country from the rest of the world, surviving on revenues from sales of natural gas, and denying the country’s people basic rights or opportunities for self-advancement.

The steep decrease in global gas prices, Turkmenistan’s primary and practically only export, has gradually led to a reduction in state subsidies for essentials such as gas, electricity, and water. Those subsidies have been a major factor in mollifying Turkmenistan’s population. But the value of the national currency, the manat, did not fall as much as the national currencies in neighboring Central Asia had, raising many questions.

The situation along Turkmenistan’s border with Afghanistan continued to deteriorate. In October 2015, fighting was right on the border -- so close that Turkmen border guards engaged in a brief discussion with militants, telling the Afghans to leave the area. The Kremlin has been pressing Turkmenistan’s government to accept Russian help along the Afghan frontier, but Ashgabat insists the situation is under control and no aid is required.

In his New Year’s address to the nation, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov said, “We have to work hard and devotedly as never before to put our beloved country among the world's most developed nations.” He predicted, “The year of 2016 will be recorded in the annals of history in golden script.”

The value of the manat on January 1, 2016, was 3.5 to the U.S. dollar. On January 1, 2015, the exchange rate was 2.85 manats to the dollar.

Bad economic news came quickly in the new year. On January 4, Russia’s Gazprom said it was suspending imports of Turkmen gas for 2016. Gazprom had already reduced the amount of gas it bought from Turkmenistan from more than 40 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2008 to 4 bcm in 2014. In terms of revenue, Gazprom’s decision was not a huge loss, but symbolically it pushed Turkmenistan into an uncomfortable position.

Turkmenistan only exports gas to Russia, Iran, and China. Iran announced in January that it would pay for gas it receives from Turkmenistan with goods and services.

And while China is importing large amounts of Turkmen gas, it is unclear how much China is actually paying, since Turkmenistan is still repaying Chinese loans used to develop gas fields and construct pipelines leading to China.

The black-market rate for U.S. dollars rose during January, reportedly hitting five manats to the dollar.

Currency-exchange bureaus stopped selling foreign currency by mid-January. Authorities limited the amount of money that could be wired out of Turkmenistan, via companies such as Western Union, to $300 per transaction with a maximum of $1,000 per month.

Turkmen authorities devalued the manat by some 23 percent in 2015, but outside Turkmenistan many were predicting another, and much deeper, devaluation is inevitable.

The opposition Alternative News of Turkmenistan website ( reported on growing unemployment numbers. Officials in the capital, Ashgabat, continued to deny people entry into the city unless they could prove residency, possibly to prevent an influx of unemployed people looking for work.

New Year’s Eve provided an example of the frustrations building in Turkmenistan. According to the opposition website, in the Gyorgoly district of Turkmenistan’s northern Dashoguz Province police detained some young children who were setting off firecrackers, part of New Year celebrations but technically against the law. When the children started crying out, their parents and neighbors came out and argued with police. One policeman allegedly punched one of the parents and chaos ensued. Some 300 residents started throwing rocks and other objects at the police, who then called for reinforcements. Some information suggests the military sent in troops to quell the disturbance. Dozens of residents were temporarily detained.

Such incidents do not happen in Turkmenistan, where security forces have spent decades cowing the people into submission. Turkmenistan’s internal affairs are so opaque there was no chance to obtain independent confirmation of the Gyorgoly incident. But on January 4, President Berdymukhammedov sacked 12 district heads, among them M. Mammedov, the chief of the Gyorogly district.

The Turkmen president frequently fires government officials. It is a tradition from the first postindependence president, Saparmurat Niyazov. State television usually airs footage the dismissals when high-level officials are being sacked.

There was a frequency of firings in January seldom seen before in Turkmenistan. In days after the 12 district heads were fired, so were the minister of labor and social protection, the governor of the eastern Lebap Province, a deputy foreign minister, and a deputy minister of trade and foreign economic relations. A few days into February, Deputy Prime Minister and head of the presidential administration Palvan Taganov, considered the third-highest official in the country, was sacked.

Between the sacking of district officials in early January and the firing of Taganov in early February, Berdymukhammedov reprimanded, on separate occasions, the head of the counternarcotics agency, the central bank chief, a deputy prime minister, the head of state television and radio, the head of the state certification agency, and the justice minister.

Even by Turkmenistan’s standards, that is a lot in less than 40 days.

There had been fighting in northern Afghanistan, just on the other side the border from Turkmenistan, several times during 2015. The Turkmen-Afghan border was quiet during the first 40 days of 2016. But Russia continued to press Turkmenistan to accept security help.

On January 3, Aleksandr Sternik, the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Third CIS Department, said Russia was ready to provide Turkmenistan with aid to strengthen its border with Afghanistan. Turkmenistan did not respond. On January 27, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited. Russian media made clear security along Turkmenistan’s Afghan border was among the top issues. That time, Turkmenistan did say it did not require security help.

It’s worth mentioning that Turkmen media have never reported on the problems along the Afghan and did not mention that portion of Lavrov’s talks with Berdymukhammedov. Nor have Turkmen media mentioned that about 70 percent of the country’s troops and military equipment were moved to the 744-kilometer Afghan frontier during 2015.

The “great distraction” for the first 40 days was the announcement of impending changes to the country’s constitution. Berdymukhammedov’s second term in office expires in February 2017. Parliament is due to review the changes soon, but it is already clear among those changes will be some amendments to the presidential term limit. Officially the changes are up for public discussion.

On February 9, the rate was 3.5 manats to the U.S. dollar.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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