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Turkmenistan: Leader Optimistic On State Of Country, But Others Have Doubts

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov yesterday opened a two-day session of the National Council, the country's highest consultative body. He told delegates that "everything is going well" in the republic. But how are things really faring in Turkmenistan? RFE/RL looks at the economic and social achievements of Niyazov's regime since independence in 1991.

Prague, 9 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov yesterday opened a National Council session with assurances that all was well in the Central Asian republic.

At the same time, Niyazov told the 3,000 council members that the main objective of his presidency for life remains to cure the country of everyday social ills. He reassured the assembly -- the country's highest consultative body -- that his decision to make gas, electricity, flour, and salt free of charge is a long-term ruling that will stand despite international criticism. "The welfare of the nation is much more important to me," he said.

Niyazov -- also known as Turkmenbashi, literally the Turkmens' head -- adopted a sterner, though still paternalistic, tone in talking about the future of Turkmen youth. "If a member of a family breaks the law, we cut one year of gas and electricity delivery. We must educate young people. Ibn Sina [or Avicienna, a legendary poet and Islamic scholar] said that if one wants to educate a child well, one must beat him. It is like fertilizer in agriculture. As our educational system is bad, I want to fire the minister of education," Niyazov said.

Niyazov proudly announced that for a third straight year, his country occupies first place in the world in terms of leading economic indicators. He claimed that last year's gross domestic product grew by more than 20 percent, and also said this year's wheat harvest came to over 2 million tons, a total he called a "miracle."

At the same time, however, Niyazov warned the country to prepare for an eventual deceleration in the growth of export revenues due to weaker global energy prices. "If the world's economy is growing, our economy will grow as well. And no problems can befall us if the two economies move in parallel. [Our economy] depends on the world's economy and political situation, as well as on the progress of peace in the region. If our neighbors are healthy, then we will be healthy," Niyazov said.

The United Nations Development Program, or UNDP, last month released its annual survey ranking countries according to standards of living based on life expectancy at birth, adult literacy rates, and per capita incomes. Of 173 countries ranked, Turkmenistan came in 87th -- the second-highest Central Asian country in the survey after Kazakhstan.

Omar Noman is the deputy director of the UNDP human-development report office in New York. He told RFE/RL that Turkmenistan -- like its Central Asian neighbors -- is still profiting from Soviet-era investments in the education and health sectors. This explains a relatively high life expectancy at birth of 66.2 years, and a nearly 100 percent adult literacy rate. "Generally on life expectancy -- compared to the [rest of the Central Asian] region -- Turkmenistan is low. And its neighbors are doing better. There is one exception, Kazakhstan, which is the lowest in Central Asia. But as far as the adult literacy rate is concerned, that's pretty much the same as other countries in the region," Noman said.

But the factor that put Turkmenistan ahead of its neighbors in the UNDP ranking is per capita income. According to official data, this came to nearly $4,000 in 2000. In Uzbekistan, for example, yearly income was barely more than half that ($2,441). "If you compare Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan's life expectancy is longer than Turkmenistan's, and Turkmenistan's literacy rate is slightly lower than in Uzbekistan. But what makes Turkmenistan's rank higher than Uzbekistan is the fact that it's got a quite high per capita income. The reasons why Turkmenistan is second in the region has to do with its per capita income," Noman said.

But Noman said that better distribution of Turkmenistan's relatively high incomes could go a long way toward increasing living standards. More resources should go to reforms in the education and health sectors -- two areas, he said, where Niyazov has reduced funding over the past year and where the benefits of Soviet-era investments are wearing off.

Noman also noted the irony of a war-ravaged country like Tajikistan achieving a life-expectancy level that, at 68 years, is higher than in Turkmenistan. The UNDP report notes that public expenditure on health represented 4.1 percent of Turkmenistan's GDP in 1998, compared to 5.2 percent in Tajikistan.

According to some estimates, the primary-school enrollment rate in Turkmenistan has decreased from 90 percent in 1990 to 50 percent in 1998. The issue of the curriculum is one of the most important issues in the reform of the education system, Nonan said. "The quality of education is clearly an issue that's been stressed, and the whole design of the curriculum to build a new kind of education system. That is happening pretty much all across the former Soviet Union, in Central and Eastern Europe," Noman said.

The UNDP human-development ranking does not take into consideration political and civic issues. Noman pointed out that the democracy building that many other countries have focused on in the last 10 years has not been seen in Turkmenistan.

But Noman pointed out that problems of governance are a concern throughout the region, where a small elites has kept a firm hold on political power. He denied the idea put forward by regional leaders after independence that they would build democracy in order to enhance economic growth. "That is, of course, not true. Countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and many others have managed a reasonable economic revival under democratic regimes. So if you are looking at those aspects, clearly there are obvious deficiencies in what's happened in Turkmenistan," Noman said.

The lack of democracy and transparency in Niyazov's regime have necessarily limited relations between Turkmenistan and international organizations in recent years. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund have all made the resumption of lending programs conditional on the implementation of measures addressing these issues.

The government's economic program for 2002 includes ambitious production targets for the oil-and-gas sector, whose exports have been the main engine of Turkmenistan's GDP growth over the past three years.

According to the National Institute of Statistics and Forecasting, Turkmenistan's real GDP growth was increasing at an annual rate of 16 percent for the first quarter of this year. But the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit noted last month that production figures for the beginning of 2002 indicate that the government's optimistic expectations for strong growth in oil and gas output for this year are uncertain.

Furthermore, analysts repeatedly stress that official statistics are likely to overestimate economic outputs by a wide margin. Former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, from the Moscow-based opposition, claims that actual income per capita in 2001 is likely to be as low as about $85 a year, while the government puts it at $3,000.

Shikhmuradov also noted that a record grain harvest reported in 2001 was achieved because the government made up the shortfall through imports from Russia and Ukraine.

(Rozinar Khoudaiberdiev and Arne Goli of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)