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Turkmenistan Claims Gain In Grain But Quiet On Cotton

Failure to reach cotton-harvest quotas has cost many a Turkmen official his job.
Failure to reach cotton-harvest quotas has cost many a Turkmen official his job.
Turkmenistan has claimed another first. State television reported on March 11 that the country had joined the ranks of grain exporters.

It's quite a feat for a country that is nearly 90 percent covered by desert, and this time a Turkmen grain claim should be verifiable.

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov made the announcement, saying the state association on grain products was authorized to export 217,000 tons of grain. Of that, 150,000 tons is wheat and 50,000 tons is flour.

That was due to the 1.5 million tons of grain harvested in 2010 and Berdymukhammedov pointed out that that was far beyond the 70,000 tons of grain harvested in 1991, the last year Turkmenistan was a Soviet republic.

Anyone who has been following Turkmenistan's reported grain harvests since the late 1990s knows the figures rarely match the reality.

Harvest Boom

In 1997, then-President Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov visited the northern Dashoguz province. Officials there told the president they would not meet the target figure for the grain harvest. Niyazov fired the officials in Dashoguz, and in three other provinces for the same reason.

That was the last year Turkmenistan failed to meet its grain-harvest target figure while Niyazov was alive.

The first "record" grain harvest came the next year, when the country reported bringing in 1.245 million tons. In 1999 Turkmen officials said the grain harvest was just over 1.7 million tons.

By 2001, a drought year across Central Asia, the figure was reportedly 2 million tons. In 2002 it was 2.3 million; in 2003, 2.5 million; and by 2006, the last year Niyazov was alive, it was reportedly 3.5 million tons.

Niyazov kept collecting golden medals for each succeeding "record" harvest and RFE/RL's Turkmen Service kept collecting tales from the country about low-quality flour often mixed with sand and sawdust and even that was sometimes in short supply.

But once Turkmenistan exports its grain it should be possible to verify shipments were received somewhere.

Cotton Tales

Skeptics of Turkmen grain claims might remember the situation with cotton when trying to assess whether Berdymukhammedov's figure are accurate.

Reports about the successful 2010 grain harvest didn't mention figures for last year's cotton crop.

Cotton has been a boon but more often a bane for officials and farmers in Turkmenistan. And more than grain, cotton seems to have taught these officials and farmers something about balancing their books when reporting to the government in Ashgabat.

In 1998, while on a visit to the Mary province, Niyazov was told the area would not meet its cotton quota. Niyazov told the foolishly honest officials that they had grown fat while the country prepared to go hungry. Niyazov then told them they could be the next people to go hungry.

In 2002, when the cotton harvest was 474,000 tons instead of the 2 million Niyazov wanted, Turkmenbashi sacked the governors of four of the country's five provinces and Deputy Prime Minister Rejep Saparov, who was in charge of agriculture. In 2003, when the cotton harvest was even less than in 2002 (450,000 tons), Niyazov fired the head of the state cotton company and one governor.

Disappointed yet again in 2004, Niyazov ordered three months' wages withheld from the governors of four provinces, the deputy prime minister in charge of agriculture, and the minister of agriculture. State TV showed Niyazov firing Akhal Governor Enebai Atayeva, telling the governor: "Shame on you! What more do you need?" He then sacked four heads of cotton-producing associations and the province's deputy governor, telling them, "Get out of here -- you are all fired without possibility of finding other jobs!"

Even an offer of a new Mercedes for a successful cotton harvest had little effect. Niyazov was still firing governors for cotton-harvest failures less than two months before he died in December 2006.

So, Turkmenistan is a grain exporter. That, at least, is what Berdymukhammedov is saying now. RFE/RL's Turkmen Service will be checking the availability and quality of bread and flour back in Turkmenistan. Check the label on bread in your local store and see if any of the wheat came from Turkmenistan.

-- Bruce Pannier