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Qishloq Ovozi

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (file photo)

A customer enters a store in Turkmenistan’s northern Dashoguz Province.

“I’d like to buy some sugar and some cooking oil, please.”

Store employee: “Certainly. Just put your name on this list and we’ll call you when it’s your turn.”

Customer: “And when might that be?”

Store employee: “Four, maybe five weeks.”

For some in Dashoguz Province, that is the new reality.

Qishloq Ovozi, with a great deal of help from RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, has been following the growing economic decline in Turkmenistan and its effects on the people of the country for months.

As difficult as it is to get a clear look into Central Asia’s “hermit kingdom,” it has become obvious the country is in a severe economic crisis, despite what the government says or what state media reports.

Turkmenistan at the moment is a failing state and it is a fascinating and disturbing process, but also one that we can learn from.

"Disturbing" because it has shown how a government with the fourth-largest reserves of natural gas in the world and a population of a mere 5 million can squander wealth and bring its people to the verge of poverty and hunger.

"Fascinating" because we are getting a look at the limits of the people’s patience, just how much the majority of a population can endure before social upheaval erupts.

As many worthy authorities have pointed out, Central Asia’s dictatorships survive and act as they do because of a tacit contract that allows the elite, especially the presidents, to live extremely well as long as the state can provide the basic needs for its people.

That contract appears to be broken now in Turkmenistan.

Let’s return to Dashoguz and see what’s happening.

People have been telling Azatlyk about their deteriorating situation there. Obviously, I do not intend to give anyone’s name or specifically identify what area of the province they live in. The repercussions for challenging the government’s narrative of a “Golden Age” can be quite severe.

But one woman told Azatlyk she went to buy sugar and cooking oil at the local state store and was put on a waiting list.

When she told her story, she had already been waiting 35 days for a call saying her goods had arrived.

“On the shelves of state stores, there is nothing except sunflower seeds and gum,” she said.

When supplies do arrive, they come in small quantities, so only four or five people at a time get these basic products. And they are rationed. One family can purchase up to five liters of cooking oil and one kilogram of sugar.

“And they force you to buy carbonated water with these products,” she said.

Dear readers, your guess is as good as mine about that part.

Actually, those in Dashoguz who live in villages where state stores are open are the lucky ones. Many state stores have reportedly closed due to lack of merchandise and their usual patrons are forced to travel to neighboring areas, or further afield, sometimes as far as 200 kilometers from their homes, searching for basic necessities like sugar and cooking oil.

There are private stores, but as Azatlyk learned, the price of sugar in a state store is some two manats per kilogram while in private stores the cost is nine manats (the official rate is 3.5 manats to the U.S. dollar, the black market rate is 6 to 7 manats to the dollar). Five liters of cooking oil costs 15 manats in state stores, 55 manats in private stores.

And even the private stores are not always open. Authorities have reportedly been carrying out unannounced checks on inventories in private stores and levying taxes or fines on the spot, which has led some storeowners to shut down their operations if they suspect officials are coming to visit.

Even if all the privately owned stores were open, most people cannot afford to pay such prices. Qishloq Ovozi has previously reported about wage arrears in Turkmenistan. The situation has not improved.

An amended version of the law on “food security” was adopted toward the end of November that required the availability of food for the population. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ordered the government to ensure the law was carried out and also that no one was raising prices above fixed rates for basic goods, particularly ahead of the New Year’s holiday.

According to testimony from the people who spoke with Azatlyk, not only in Dashoguz but also in the southwestern Balkan Province, that order has gone unfulfilled.

The prevalence and scope of these shortages would seem to indicate it is not corruption or mismanagement that is to blame but simply a shortage of supplies.

Which brings us back to the tacit contract.

Central Asia is full of examples of emirs and khans who taxed their people into poverty and neglected to provide for their basic needs. Eventually, the people usually overthrew such leaders.

In Kyrgyzstan, home to a much more dynamic political culture than Turkmenistan's, we have seen the limits of the people’s tolerance. Since 2005, Kyrgyzstan’s people have twice chased their presidents from power, both times when it appeared to the people that these presidents were concentrating too much into their own hands and those of family members.

But Kyrgyzstan is an exception in Central Asia.

The type of government in Turkmenistan is more comparable to what exists in Uzbekistan, and increasingly in Tajikistan.

In Uzbekistan, leaving aside the Andijon violence of May 2005, there have been isolated outbreaks of unrest, almost always caused by lack of basic goods or drastic increases in prices. But these were always localized problems. They affected one area but not the vast majority of the country, so it never led to a wider conflagration.

Turkmenistan’s current socioeconomic situation is more uniform; it appears to be affecting the entire country.

For those wondering where the limit of patience is in Central Asia, how much can the people there endure before reaching a breaking point, the present conditions in Turkmenistan are offering unique insight.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) speaks with interim Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev after laying flowers at the grave of late Uzbek President Islam Karimov on September 6, 2016.

Uzbekistan holds a presidential election on December 4, the fifth such vote in the country’s 25-year history as an independent state. But for the first time, the name Islam Karimov will not appear on ballots.

Karimov’s death, announced on September 2, has given some hope that there could be changes, however slight, to the authoritarian government in Uzbekistan.

RFE/RL assembled our panel podcast, Majlis, to look at the clear front-runner in this weekend's election, what he has done in his brief time as acting president, and discuss the problems he faces in getting the country moving forward after the vote.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. Bakhtiyor Nishanov, regional deputy director for Eurasia at the International Republican Institute, participated from Washington. From Prague, Alisher Sidik, the director of RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, joined the conversation. And also from Prague, though from a different studio, I tossed in a few comments.

Shavkat Mirziyaev has been Uzbekistan’s prime minister since 2003. But since September, he has also been interim president, due to what Nishanov described as an “unconstitutional” process that circumvented a constitutional stipulation that should have seen the Senate speaker take over as acting president until an election was held.

Sidik said the December 4 poll is “not about an election, it’s just an approval for current acting President and Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev.”

Mirziyaev’s election as president seems a foregone conclusion, and in that sense the vote mirrors earlier elections won by the late Karimov.

Nishanov noted a small change in the way this latest campaign was conducted. “In the past it was very Soviet-style, 'Go do your duty as a citizen,'” he said, whereas, “This one was a little bit more light-hearted; there were pop artists that would appeal to younger folks.”

Turnout will be important, because Uzbekistan’s second-ever president needs a clear demonstration of his popularity, the enthusiasm of Uzbekistan’s people casting ballots for him.

Mirziyaev is running against three little-known opponents, though two of his rivals in the election -- Khotamjon Ketmonov of the People’s Democratic Party and Nariman Umarov of the Adolat Party -- ran against Karimov in the March 2015 presidential election.

There were numerous accusations of vote rigging in previous elections in Uzbekistan, but those alleged activities were presumably to enhance Karimov’s portion of the vote.

Sidik suggested that, this time, election officials might also have to manipulate the vote count but that, ironically, that might be because Mirziyaev “will get 99 percent; and because they [presumably] don’t want to show that he’s a dictator from the very beginning, they would need to lower his percentage.”

The portion of the vote that Mirziyaev receives might be the only interesting part of the election. A count that shows he received more than 90 percent of the votes could be interpreted as showing he is not confident in his new position and needs a high publicized vote count that speaks to his popularity.

A vote count under 90 or even 80 percent could show Mirziyaev is firmly in power and also would send a message that he and his administration are willing at least to pay lip service to concerns -- expressed mostly in the West -- about Uzbekistan’s commitment to possible democratic reforms.

After the election, Mirziyaev faces some formidable challenges in moving Uzbekistan forward.

“The Uzbek government has got an enormous...problem on their hands, and that’s the economic situation in the country,” Nishanov said.

Sidik noted one of Mirziyaev’s campaign promises has been plans "to attract a lot of investment.”

Where this investment might come from is a big question. China has invested large amounts of money into Uzbekistan, but nearly all it has gone toward projects that bring Central Asian resources to China.

Russia has already signaled it is prepared to invest more money into Uzbekistan. At the end of November, LUKoil proposed building a chain of gasoline stations across Uzbekistan. In the few months that Mirziyaev has been in charge, Russia is virtually the only party that has shown interest in investing in Uzbekistan.

But the Uzbek government has always been wary of getting too close to Russia, and since Mirziyaev assumed power, statements from Uzbekistan have emphasized the country is not interested in joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) or the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

At the same time, Uzbekistan officially has some 1.5 million migrant laborers working in Russia; the actual number could be nearly twice that.

But remittances from Uzbek workers in Russia have fallen drastically, and that has hurt Uzbekistan’s economy. Russia’s central bank reported remittances to Uzbekistan in 2013 of some $6.63 billion; the figure for the first half of 2016 totaled just $952 million.

Eurasian Economic Union member Kyrgyzstan, by contrast, saw its number of migrant laborers increase in 2016 along with the figure for remittances.

Another ostensible postelection plan is to allow the Uzbek national currency, the som, to float. But it was noted that Kazakhstan took that step that in late 2015 and it led to some of the worst social unrest that country had seen since the late 1990s.

Concerning domestic policies on matters like freedom of speech or political pluralism, our Majlis participants voiced doubts about any positive changes.

On freedom of the press, Sidik said: “Mirziyaev never expressed his opinions on this.... He never gave a single interview... never answered journalists’ questions, and I don’t know whether he plans any press conferences.”

It was also noted that Uzbekistan has recently released some political prisoners, which could be taken as a hopeful sign.

Nishanov welcomed these moves but said this was similar to what has been seen previously. “One of the tactics that Karimov had employed was, ‘'We’re going to release somebody [prisoners] and make us look good,’” Nishanov said.

There appeared to be seemingly little hope of change with Mirziyaev as president. But Mirizyaev has hinted that his administration might court better regional ties, and the dire economic situation in Uzbekistan could force his government to make some changes.

There is hope that, as a means to gaining some genuine popularity, Mirziyaev might offer gestures that actually benefit the public, as was true in the first year that Turkmenistan’s second president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, was in power.

So Mirziyayev will not be a second Karimov; he cannot be. What he might be is further discussed in the Majlis podcast, along with a deeper look at the issues mentioned in this text.

An audio recording of the discussion can be heard at:

Majlis Podcast: What's Next In Uzbekistan?
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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.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws 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.



Cross-Border Tensions In Central Asia
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Podcast: Majlis
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Cross-Border Tensions In Central Asia
Podcast: Majlis