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Turkmen Authorities Giveth And Turkmen Authorities Taketh Away

  • Bruce Pannier

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (center) waves to the media during the starting ceremony of a 500-day nationwide horse race at the historical site of Nisa just outside Ashgabat on May 5 in preparation for the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (center) waves to the media during the starting ceremony of a 500-day nationwide horse race at the historical site of Nisa just outside Ashgabat on May 5 in preparation for the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games.

Qishloq Ovozi just looked at the situation in Turkmenistan, where wage arrears and shortages of basic food are becoming the norm for many.

In a superficial way -- and Turkmenistan’s government is nothing if not superficial -- it appears the problem with delayed salaries has eased in some areas of the country.

Some workers in the northern Dashoguz Province were finally paid their overdue salaries -- except the money was reportedly put directly into their bank accounts, accessible only through use of plastic banking cards. Not many stores in Dashoguz Province are set up to take bank cards in exchange for merchandise. There are ATMs, a few, for 1.2 million people; they run out of cash quickly and are not restocked regularly.

Many of these workers in Dashoguz, and others like them around the country who are finally starting to receive at least some of their back pay, might have a problem accessing their money. But the state has had no problem at all.

In yet another sign of Turkmenistan’s economic plunge, the state is said to be removing money from the paychecks of at least some employees of state institutions. RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, heard from workers at state institutions that up to half of their salaries are being withheld as “contributions” to fund construction of facilities for the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games that Ashgabat is hosting next year.

Several teachers who have been subjected to this deduction told Azatlyk they were made to sign a form stating that they were “voluntarily” donating the money.

The games (which I’ll confess I had never heard of before Turkmenistan was named host country for 2017) are one of the Turkmen government’s many prestige projects. The government likes showing off to the world, even when Turkmen authorities don’t really want foreign visitors.

Billions of dollars have been spent on the nearly empty Awaza resort area on Turkmenistan’s Caspian coast, billions more on the white-marble capital, Ashgabat, where residents seem to be discouraged from roaming the broad avenues, themselves nearly devoid of automobiles. Once again, the new Ashgabat airport -- $2.3 billion, practically empty.

The cost of building the “Olympic Village” for next year’s games is estimated at $5 billion.

All these projects were started when the price of natural gas was hitting record highs on world markets. Turkmenistan’s government likes to boast the country has the world’s fourth-largest gas reserves. Just how meaningless that is in a region where all Turkmenistan’s neighbors also have gas is becoming apparent.

Turkmenistan’s big hope is for long pipelines, like the three, soon to be four, pipelines running from Turkmenistan to China -- which is also Turkmenistan’s biggest creditor and only paying customer. (Exports to Iran are repaid in barter; on October 3, Iran’s Oil Ministry said Turkmen gas imports were “not a necessity.")

It is unlikely there will be any more multinational pipelines connecting Turkmenistan to major markets of the world anytime soon, so it is equally unlikely Turkmenistan’s economic fortunes will take a turn for the better anytime soon.

That means in September 2017, when martial arts champions from around Asia come to Ashgabat for the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, Turkmenistan can honestly say nearly everyone in the country pitched in to prepare for the big event.

Azatlyk’s Farruh Yusupov and Toymyrat Bugaev contributed to this report; The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect he views of RFE/RL.

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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