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Qishloq Ovozi

Saturday 5 January 2019

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (right) and his grandson fiddle in the New Year.

The images of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov sending his New Year's gift in the form of song to the country's people seemed fitting. Tragic, but fitting.

It shows the incredible disconnect between the world he lives in and the world Turkmenistan's people live in.

Berdymukhammedov took the stage, again, this time on December 21 (the 12th anniversary of his predecessor's death) at the Mizan Center in Ashgabat, where he was joined, not for the first time, by his grandson Kerimguly.

They performed songs in Turkmen, including "Arzuw" (Dream), which was reportedly penned by the president himself. But the dynastic duo also performed songs in English and German.

The choice of a German song puzzled some people. But so did those reports from Global Witness and The Economist about billions of dollars, clearly belonging to someone in Turkmenistan, in German banks.

So, auf Deutsch? Warum nicht?

Poking fun at Berdymukhammedov's latest appearance on stage would be like shooting fish in a barrel, but before leaving that topic I must say I would have appreciated a side-angle camera shot proving that the Turkmen president was actually tickling the ivories.

In the video aired, we can see him swaying and singing full-frontal, but the piano is blocking his hands. When we do see a close-up of Berdymukhammedov's alleged finger work, you cannot be sure the president is the one playing. The man, with hands on the keys, are never shown at the same time.

It was not very convincing. Not to me, at least.

A Different Turkmenistan

Outside of Turkmenistan it's difficult to fully understand how the citizens of the country, those who watched the New Year's special anyway, reacted to this latest round of low theater.

Their lives are very different from those of the well-fed, affluent grandfather and grandson seen on state television.

Turkmenistan's economy has been in sharp decline for more than three years. Reliance on natural-gas exports for state revenue finally caught up with Turkmenistan, which is exporting less gas now than it did 10 years ago and is receiving less than half the money it earned from gas sales five years ago. The 2018 state budget was some 95.5 billion manats ($27.3 billion), an 8 percent reduction from 2017. The recently approved budget for 2019 is some 83.8 billion manats.

For the average Turkmen citizen this has translated to waiting in line outside stores for basic goods such as cooking oil, flour, sugar, bread -- all of which are now rationed. State stores quickly run out of such staples, leaving people with a choice of waiting until state stores receive new supplies -- and it is never clear when that will be -- or purchasing them at private stores, where they are available, but at two to three (or more) times the price.

The government has countered by airing television footage of well-stocked state stores.

Cash is in short supply, in part because of government attempts to make Turkmenistan a cashless consumer society. Unfortunately, not all stores and bazaars have the necessary machines to accept plastic. Turkmen citizens must depend on withdrawing money from bank machines, which are not regularly restocked and run out of cash quickly.

Police and security forces are increasingly tasked with watching places where lines are likely to form -- stores and banks -- to not only prevent disorder among the frustrated public, but also to keep people waiting in line from openly criticizing the government. Police and security forces also watch over markets and bazaars to ensure no one is purchasing more than their allotted portions of basic goods and that merchants do not overcharge customers.

New regulations in 2018 made it more difficult for many citizens, mainly men under 40, to leave Turkmenistan, removing the possibility of finding employment in another country as some have done for more than two decades. The reason for this has not been explained.

And as of January 1, 2019, Turkmen citizens will have to pay for all their water, gas, and electricity, a portion of which had been given free by the state for some 25 years. The state has threatened to shut off utilities to those who do not pay, and forced citizens to pay for the meters to track use

A new burden for a new year. Not much worth celebrating this December 31.

Looking at Berdymukhammedov's smiling face as he sat behind the piano, one could get the impression he has no concept of what life is like for Turkmenistan's people.

As a final bitter piece of irony, the Turkmen parliament has declared 2019 to be the year of "Turkmenistan -- the Home of Prosperity."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
U.S. President Donald Trump (left) greets Shavkat Mirziyoev during the Uzbek president's visit to the White House in May.

The new-look Uzbekistan under President Shavkat Mirziyoev continued to be the dominant story coming out of Central Asia in 2018 and Tashkent's new political posturing has also sent ripples throughout the region.

There were also plenty of (good and bad) things happening in the other Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan -- that perhaps provide some insight into what lies in store for the region in 2019.

RFE/RL's media-relations manager, Muhammad Tahir, moderated a discussion that looked at some of the key events in Central Asia in 2018 and what they might mean for the next 12 months.

It's a broad topic that merits hours, not minutes, of discussion.

So, we brought in two people who have been watching Central Asia for many years: Joanna Lillis, an Almaty-based, longtime correspondent for EurasiaNet and author of the recently published Dark Shadows: Inside The Secret World of Kazakhstan; and Luca Anceschi, professor of Central Asian Studies at Glasgow University and author of Turkmenistan's Foreign Policy: Positive Neutrality And The Consolidation Of The Turkmen Regime. As usual, I was also happy to take part in the conversation.

Majlis Podcast: A Look Back At 2018 In Central Asia
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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.

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