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Turkmenistan: Senior Citizens Protest Pension Cuts

By Wade German Turkmen President Niyazov (file photo) (RFE/RL) Many elderly people in Turkmenistan are very unhappy these days. That's because President Saparmurat Niyazov -- who likes to be called Turkmenbashi or the "Father of All Turkmen" -- recently canceled payments to about one-third of the country's pensioners. Payments to hundreds of thousands of other pensioners were also cut. The move sparked small-scale protests at government offices by Turkmenistan's senior citizens, many of whom rely on their pensions as their only source of income. Protests in general are a rare occurence in this Central Asian country. Some say the severity of the situation threatens to spread further discontent.

PRAGUE, 6 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- After initial shock and confusion in early January, senior citizens in Turkmenistan began protesting the changes to the country's pension system. Niyazov and the Welfare Ministry subsequently announced the new system, which was signed into law by Niyazov on 25 January.

The Welfare Ministry made it clear on that day that some pensioners will completely lose their payments and others will face significant cuts.

"What is without a doubt is that the government sector is overwhelmingly the [main] employer in the country, and by withdrawing employment opportunities the government is essentially ensuring that people are left with no source of income whatsoever."

Rare Protests

Open dissent against the government is almost unheard of in Turkmenistan. But independent Turkmen rights groups say that retirees have gathered in recent days in front of government offices and in other areas to voice their discontent over the cuts. Protests were reported in the Ilyaly and Kunya-Urgench districts of northern Dashoguz province. Another report places a crowd of pensioners holding a protest in the center of the western port city of Turkmenbashi.

The cuts will reportedly eliminate pensions going to more than 100,000 people. The first news of the cuts didn't come through official media. Instead, elderly people were called to district government offices across the country, where they were told about the new deal.

Witnesses say the announcements stirred an immediate uproar and caused many elderly people to collapse. Some of them were reportedly hospitalized.

Susanne Paul is the president of the New York-based group Global Action on Aging, an organization that works at the United Nations to highlight what is happening to older people around the world. She says her group is closely monitoring the situation in Turkmenistan as it is concerned that seniors there are facing an emergency situation

"In Turkmenistan it sounds like this is a pretty drastic development to cut the pension incomes entirely, and we're following it closely to see what resistance there might be to it and to what happens next," she said.

Shortage Of Funds?

Niyazov has said the decision to cut pensions is linked to errors in a national census regarding farm workers. Others have attributed it to shortcomings in the state pension fund.

Nurmuhammet Hanamov, leader of the opposition Republican Party of Turkmenistan in exile, questions the legality of the new pension law: "The old law should be effective for those people who have already been getting pensions under that law. They cannot be deprived of the right for the pension under the conditions of the new law. The new version of the law should be implemented only for new pensions."

Independent Turkmen human rights groups are also questioning the legal basis of pension cuts.

The severity of the situation is complicated due to mass unemployment in Turkmenistan. Accurate unemployment figures in the country are hard to come by, but independent groups agree it is exceptionally high. Nongovernmental organizations have reported that labor exchanges in the country cannot adequately cope with the amount of people seeking work. People seeking work at some employment offices can wait in lines for days. And many unemployed are not even registered as being without work because they can't afford the unemployment services.

The picture that emerges isn't pretty. Due to mass unemployment, many pensioners -- until recently -- have been the sole supporters of their family. With many of them now receiving reduced payments or none at all, many families are left without any means of subsistence.

High Unemployment

Erika Dailey directs the Turkmenistan Project at the Open Society Institute in New York. She says Niyazov's government is to blame for the unemployment situation in the country.

"What is without a doubt is that the government sector is overwhelmingly the [main] employer in the country, and by withdrawing employment opportunities the government is essentially ensuring that people are left with no source of income whatsoever," she said.

Dailey says Niyazov's recent changes to the health, education, and pension systems have had a disastrous impact:

"President Niyazov has introduced what he purports to be reforms, ostensibly for budgetary purposes, to bring about a sort of fiscal management or responsibility into these spheres," she said. "But in fact, the impact has been completely unjustifiable from an economic standpoint and in fact has been utterly disastrous in those spheres, specifically health care, education, and pensions."

Officials in Ashgabat are downplaying the situation. Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry on 4 February said that pension maintenance covers "most" of the Turkmen population and that the amount of social payment is "high" and "in line with the social-economic growth of Turkmenistan." It goes on to say that the population is provided for with free gas, electricity, "low" transportation costs, drinking water, and salt.

According to World Health Organization statistics from 2002, life expectancy in Turkmenistan is 51 years for men and 57.2 years for women. In Turkmenistan, people are only eligible to start receiving pensions in their 60s.

(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)

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