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Turkmenistan: Harvest Said To Exceed Expectations

Prague, 22 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- There was a celebration last week in Turkmenistan, a harvest fiesta.

The government has announced that a high grain quota was met in the best harvest in Turkmenistan's history. The country's leader, Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov, was honored with the "Golden Moon" (Altyn Ai) award for his "tireless work" to achieve this result.

But doubts persist as to the reality of this miracle of agricultural achievement in the largely desert country. And at the heart of the uncertainty is Niyazov himself.

A man who once proclaimed Turkmenistan to be another Kuwait in the years to come, has long insisted that the country must become self-sufficient in the production of crops.

To some, this was an impossible dream. True, once, thousands of years ago, the area which is now southwestern Turkmenistan was a garden. But rivers have changed their course and now Turkmenistan has some of the poorest soil in the region.

But Niyazov believes that money and technology will solve the problem. So the country has bought, by Niyazov's account, one $1 billion worth of farming equipment since independence.

In 1996 Niyazov set the self-sufficiency target figure at 1.2 million tons of grain. But that year the country gathered only 480,000 tons. The next year the target was the same and the results slightly better at about 600,000 tons. Each year, both ministers of agriculture and many other officials were summarily dismissed for failing to reach the goal.

In 1998 a new tactic was used. Niyazov set the same target figure but warned that failure to meet it would be seen as a sign of corruption or mismanagement, carrying a threat of criminal charges.

In addition, limited agricultural reforms were enacted. Farmers for the first time have been able to get long term contracts to farm plots, although the limit of three hectares of land per person has been imposed. The Central Bank of Turkmenistan loaned 304,000 million manat (about $73 million) to farmers this year for leasing the land. The loans were initially interest-free, but in March Niyazov signed a resolution setting a two-percent interest rate to be repaid by year's end.

In late May it seemed Turkmenistan would repeat recent disastrous harvest performances. According to Turkmen television, on May 22 Niyazov met with officials from one of the richest agricultural areas in Turkmenistan, the Akhal region. He complained that they were again making "empty promises" about the harvest.

Niyazov then transferred the minister of agriculture to the post of head of the State Grain Products Association and threatened severe punishment to all if the target figure were not met.

The threat must have been effective. Last week came the news that the grain harvest exceed the target, reaching 1.24 million tons.

Niyazov promptly declared that Turkmenistan would increase grain production to 2 million tons by the year 2000 and will become a grain exporter.

It remains a mystery, however, how the fields which had looked bad in late May managed to produce the bumper harvest barely six weeks later. Could it be that there is some "difference" between what is being reported and what is actually achieved? One is reminded of "achievements" from the Soviet times when officials all too often wrote down what Moscow expected and in so doing kept their own positions.

Niyazov himself seemed to confirm the possibility of such practices when he accused Governor Charyyev of the Mary Region at the July 16 Elder's Council of "some kind of forgery" in reporting the harvest result in his area. According to Niyazov "in the Mary Region alone they have forged 100 tons of grain." Was the Mary Region alone in doing this?

The figures for this year's cotton harvest will be coming soon. The plan is 1.5 million tons. If it is 1.5-something million it will look rather suspicious.

As for the grain, the proof of the harvest reports will come soon in this year's bread lines at stores and farmers ability to repay loans.