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Qishloq Ovozi

I personally have been hard at work writing new books for my people to read -- 40 so far, seven this year alone.

Authorities in Turkmenistan have announced that the country will conduct a presidential election on February 12, 2017. Incumbent President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is certain -- barring sickness or death -- to win a third term in office.

Other presidential candidates will appear, as they have the last two times Berdymukhammedov has run for president -- on February 11, 2007, and February 12, 2012. As was true in the previous two presidential elections, these "rival" candidates will probably be people little known to the Turkmen public, participating in the campaign like actors in a staged production.

The campaign and its results will be similar to what's been seen before in Turkmenistan. Berdymukhammedov took 89 percent of the vote in 2007 and 97 percent of the vote in 2012.

The big difference between the upcoming election and those previous two polls is that February 2017 is coming at arguably the worst of times in independent Turkmenistan's 25-year history.

So I'm curious what Berdymukhammedov tells his people this time around. Why should Turkmen voters show up at polling centers on February 12 to cast their ballots for the current president, the person they called "Arkadag" (The Protector)?

I am not Berdymukhammedov's speechwriter, but I am concerned he might miss some things in the campaign speeches he delivers -- if he even bothers to campaign, that is.

In the interest of presenting a well-rounded portrayal of the situation in Turkmenistan, I thought I would write a speech for the Turkmen president, in his own style.

Note: The situation in Turkmenistan is no laughing matter, and I am aware of that. If the tone of this blog post is lighthearted, its message is very serious.


Greetings, great and extraordinarily patient people of Turkmenistan!

I speak to you now, asking for your vote in the upcoming presidential election.

I could make a lot of promises about the future, and maybe some of them could even really happen.

But today I choose to speak about the last five years of my presidency.

When I asked for your vote in 2012, we were just coming off a year, 2011, in which we saw 14.7 percent GDP growth, a figure given by the World Bank.

Times are different now. Last year, we registered 6.5 percent GDP growth, according to the World Bank, and this year it looks like that figure will drop slightly to 6.2 percent.

As I and other officials have told you, the global economic crisis -- and not your government -- is to blame for this decrease.

These new external economic problems pose new challenges for Turkmenistan.

Five years ago, the price of natural gas on world markets was more than twice what it is today. I don't have to tell you that gas is almost the only thing we export, and in 2012 Turkmenistan appeared to be well on its way to diversifying its gas export routes. We exported gas to three customers, and there were plans to open two new routes to major markets.

As I stand before you today, we are exporting to only two customers: China and Iran.

We are sorry that our friend Russia decided at the start of 2015 not to purchase any more gas from Turkmenistan and to instead buy gas from our friend Uzbekistan.

It's true. Some of the gas we export to China goes toward paying our multibillion-dollar debt to that country. It's also true that Iran pays with goods, not money.

But we haven't given up on projects to build a pipeline to India and another across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan, where our natural gas can be sent to countries in Europe. Admittedly, those plans no longer look so promising.

Our idea for a trans-Caspian pipeline to export gas to Europe has not yet been realized, and might never be, due to the objections of our Caspian littoral neighbors Russia and Iran.

Our government and media continue to report about building the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline on the territory of Turkmenistan. We cannot show you any pictures of this construction, but the government will continue to remind you of progress in constructing the pipeline.

Pay no attention to those who call TAPI a "virtual" pipeline.

Five years ago, in northwestern Afghanistan, just across our border, people lived in relative peace. That is no longer the case. There is now fighting in all the Afghan provinces bordering Turkmenistan. So there might be some small delays constructing the pipeline through Afghanistan. The same goes for Pakistan's southern Balochistan region, which is also on TAPI's route.

And since I mentioned Afghanistan, I want to repeat the words of other Turkmen government officials and tell you that there is no security problem along our border with Afghanistan. Don't listen to stories you might hear of our soldiers or border guards being involved in fighting -- or even being killed -- along the Afghan border.

Opening celebrations for a new public building in Ashgabat, the "White City"
Opening celebrations for a new public building in Ashgabat, the "White City"

And don't worry that earlier this year we conducted the largest mobilization of our armed forces ever in our 25-year history and have recently been purchasing new weapons, including a missile system from China.

Our policy of positive neutrality, recognized by the UN, has always been our best protection, and it is now enshrined in our constitution -- part of the same changes adopted in September that will make my third term in office a seven-year term instead of those five-years terms I've previously served.

But enough about the outside world. Let's look at our achievements here at home over the last five years.

As we told you earlier this year, we have reached the point in our development where the state no longer needs to provide you, its citizens, with subsidies. Turkmenistan's people are well enough off now that you do not need free electricity, gas, or water anymore, so we will soon halt these unnecessary gifts. But rest assured, these utilities will continue to be provided to you intermittently.

We still face economic challenges. Some of you have lost your jobs recently, especially those in the gas and oil sector. Having brought that up, let me now mention these tales told by foreign media about unemployment in Turkmenistan being more than 50 percent.

How could the foreign press and other outside organizations know this? We don't let them in.

And during my third term, this government will continue to reject visa applications from undesirable foreigners seeking to come to Turkmenistan for sinister reasons of trying to obtain objective information.

Our government provides facts and figures on all the things people outside the country need to know about Turkmenistan. It's all there on government websites and in state media.

Some of you who are working are not receiving your wages on time. In some cases, arrears go back several months.

It is especially to you that I wish to express my gratitude, because many of you, after this wait, had your wages garnished to pay for our country to build the facilities necessary to host the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games we are hosting in our capital, Ashgabat, next year.

Did I say "garnished"? Forgive me. I meant to say the money you are "voluntarily" giving to help build facilities for those games. "Voluntarily" -- that's what it said on those papers that officials gave you to sign when you agreed to contribute money from your salaries.

I look pretty good, don't you think?
I look pretty good, don't you think?

Turkmenistan continues to produce some of the highest quality basic goods. Most of you have seen the long lines in front of our stores. Turkmenistan's products are so good people are willing to queue up outside stores to wait for their chance to buy a rationed amount of these basic products.

Don't forget to bring your documents with you. We do enforce purchase limits for all families.

And I'll address those accusations of food shortages and higher prices for basic goods now by comment.

To those of you who smoke, I say first: Shame on you. It's bad for your health. But I'll add that you can now buy one pack of cigarettes for less than $20. That's already an improvement from just a couple of months ago. True, we're limiting the number of packs you can buy, but, again, it's a bad habit.

I'm talking about dollars here, but I don't need to remind you that dollar transactions are illegal now. Your government has no intention of helping these black markets that are offering seven or more manats, our national currency, for one U.S. dollar. Turkmenistan's government stands by its official rate of 3.5 manats to one U.S. dollar.

Let me conclude by saying that these hard times, caused again by the economic hardships outside Turkmenistan, have not stopped this government from spending money on magnificent projects. Look at Ashgabat, the "White City," recognized in 2013 by the Guinness Book of Records as having the highest density of white marble-clad buildings.

That's something to be proud of.

I know most of you don't live or work in any these buildings -- very few people do -- but you do sometimes pass them. They look good, don't you think?

And I'll add that the city looks much better without all those air conditioners local authorities ordered to be removed from the outside of buildings. These were only needed for the four or five months of the year when the temperature was over 40 Celsius anyway, so most of the year they were useless.

And work continues at Awaza, our resort area on the Caspian Sea. We've spent billions of dollars designing Awaza and building the luxurious five-star hotels that line our Caspian coast there, hotels that already have 20 to 30 percent occupancy, on occasion.

The government continues to support the arts. I don't need to remind anyone about that massive statue of yours truly on horseback in downtown Ashgabat that was unveiled in May 2015. That gold leaf really brings out the character in that work, don't you think?

And I personally have been hard at work writing new books for my people to read -- 40 so far, seven this year alone. I have been working equally hard writing new songs and will continue to appear on state television performing them for you.

To close, I want to speak to each and every one of you, the people of Turkmenistan, whether you're employed, or partly employed, or unemployed, a supporter of the government or one of those being treated at state expense for psychological problems, those of you who are content and those who authorities are currently trying to help find the correct, state-approved path to inner happiness.

Cast your vote for me, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, on February 12. I've been your president for 10 years, and thanks to another of those amendments passed in September, there is no age limit for running for president now, so I'll be your president for who knows how long?

Thanks and vote on election day! We'll know if you don't.

Farruh Yusupov and Toymyrat Bugaev of 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
It's estimated that around 1 million people are forced into Uzbek fields each year to pick cotton.

Uzbekistan just had its annual cotton fair. During the October 12-13 event in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, Uzbekistan reported that it had signed contracts to sell some 550,000 tons of cotton and finished textiles for some $1.32 billion. Something is going right because last year Uzbekistan reported sales of 700,000 tons of cotton and finished textiles for just over $800 million.

No matter what the sales figures say, the cotton business in Uzbekistan rides on the back of slave labor. Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest is possible because, every year, hundreds of thousands of the country’s citizens are forced into the fields. Also every year, the harvest claims the lives of a dozen or more people.

On this week's Majlis podcast, we look at the cotton harvest, not only in Uzbekistan but in other Central Asian countries.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From Germany, Umida Niyazova, longtime Uzbek activist, independent journalist, and founder of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, joined the talk. From the International Labor Rights Forum in Washington, D.C., Kirill Boychenko, who is the coordinator of the Cotton Campaign, a coalition dedicated to stopping use of forced labor in Central Asia, took part. Steve Swerdlow, the Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, participated. I pitched in on the discussion also, of course.

Niyazova started the discussion, giving an idea of who is being sent to the fields.

“Among them there are students, heads of organizations, representatives of various professional spheres, and we can say that the majority of state organizations’ employees,” she said. She added that another group sent to the fields are “those who are receiving different social benefits, mostly women and small children.”

How many people? “We estimate -- it’s our very lowest [estimate] -- around 1 million people are forced to go out to pick cotton every year,” she said.

Swerdlow called it “a mass mobilization of the entire population in almost a war-effort manner.”

For those in the fields, the hours are long. For some people, most, even all, of the daylight hours are spent picking cotton. When the harvest starts in early September, the temperatures in some places climb well over 40 degrees. There are quotas to be met and those who fail to pick the assigned weight are often abused -- verbally, even physically -- by local officials tasked with gathering the cotton.

And that has included the man who is currently Uzbekistan’s acting president, Shavkat Mirziyaev.

“Mirziyaev himself did this. We have a report that in the year 2000, when he was [Jizzakh] regional governor, he beat up a math teacher because the students of that math teacher were apparently picking cotton too slowly,” Swerdlow recalled.

It is not only those in the fields who are affected. As Swerdlow reminded us, “We had a mother lose her baby just a few days ago because the doctors were not in the clinic where she went to give birth.”

Niyazova added, “We saw schools where 80 percent of the teachers were out in the fields and in the whole school there were only a few teachers who stayed with the kids.”

Boychenko said the situation in Turkmenistan is comparable.

“We also see mass mobilization of public sector employees. Again, independent monitors are reporting about children being sent into the fields,” Boychenko explained.

Of course, there are options.

“You can buy freedom from picking cotton. It costs around $100 for 20 days,” Niyazova said. Boychenko said the same about Turkmenistan. “If you want to be free [from picking cotton], you need to buy your freedom,” he said.

It is worth noting that “farmers are also obliged to grow cotton,” Niyazova said, adding that “for most of the farmers to grow cotton is not profitable” since “the government sets up the procurement prices for cotton and farmers are obliged to sell cotton only to the government.”

The Majlis guests are all involved in fighting forced labor in Uzbekistan's cotton campaign. But it is a difficult task.

“Systematic forced labor in the cotton sector remained from the Soviet time,” Niyazova said.

So, too, has the patriotic calls to citizens. Uzbekistan’s authorities say picking cotton is serving the nation, that cotton is the country's "white gold.”

There have been some successes in efforts to combat the use of forced labor in cotton harvesting in Uzbekistan.

The Cotton Campaign persuaded many Western companies to boycott Uzbek cotton until the use of forced labor in the fields is halted. Such pressure convinced the Uzbek authorities to allow international monitors to enter the country at harvest time, though they are limited in the areas they can visit.

Such pressure also led to a significant reduction in the use of child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields. Instead, their places are often taken by the children’s teachers, doctors, and parents.

Swerdlow recalled, “The European Parliament took a very important step in 2011 when they refused to reduce the tariffs on the import of [Uzbek] cotton into Europe.”

Boychenko said, “If the Uzbek government understands that [sanctions for using forced labor] can influence their profits, they are prone to change.”

Efforts by Western countries and organizations have had some effect on Uzbekistan’s policies toward labor in the cotton fields. But a list of purchasers for Uzbekistan’s cotton shows it is mainly companies from non-Western countries that buy the cotton.

At the 2015 cotton fair in Tashkent, for example, the majority of sales were made to buyers from Bangladesh, China, Turkey, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Poland, the U.A.E., Czech Republic, Great Britain, Iran, and Russia.

Niyazova summed up the situation, saying, “There are no other countries where forced labor is a state policy and that means that forced labor will stop in Uzbekistan when Uzbek authorities stop forcing people to go to the fields.”

The Majlis went deeper into these topics and other issues surrounding the use of force labor in the cotton fields of Central Asia.

Majlis Podcast: Uzbekistan And The State Cotton Plantation
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Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.

The views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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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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