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'Bad Luck' For Black Car Owners In Turkmen Capital

For weeks, officials in Ashgabat have been impounding black vehicles without warning.

Turkmenistan's president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, thinks white cars bring good fortune. And that's bad luck for owners of black cars in the capital.

For weeks, officials in Ashgabat have been impounding black vehicles without warning, wreaking havoc for owners who need special permission for repainting and then reregistering their cars.

While there don't appear to have been any official announcements, Berdymukhammedov has expressed frustration at swank black cars in the capital, known as the "city of white marble," and motorists told RFE/RL that the traffic stops and towing of parked dark cars began late last month.

The campaign is also foisting unforeseen costs on residents in a city where the State Statistics Committee puts the average monthly wage at under 1,200 manats, roughly $300 at the government-established exchange rate or less than $200 per month at the black-market rate that many are forced to use.

President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov likes white cars.
President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov likes white cars.

"When I came to the auto shop, I was told that the repainting would cost 7,000 manats but that in a week the price would rise to 11,000 manats," one car owner who requested that his name not be published told RFE/RL.

"My salary is 1,000 manats, so even if I don't spend any money anywhere, I will be forced to hand over pretty much my entire annual salary just to repaint,” he added, noting that his car had already been impounded.

It's not the first time Berdymukhammedov, who has tolerated little dissent since coming to power after the death of autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006, and his administration have taken aim at black cars.

In 2015, Berdymukhammedov ordered customs officials to halt all imports of black cars after he began using a convoy of white vehicles when traveling to public events.

End Of A Golden Era?

Oil-rich Turkmenistan, wedged between Iran, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan, has become well-known for the eccentricities of its leaders.

Niyazov built a giant gold statue of himself and located it in the center of the capital, where it constantly rotated to always face the sun until it was moved to a less prominent location under his successor.

Niyazov also renamed months of the year after his family members and adopted the moniker Turkmenbashi, which means the "Father of all Turkmen."

A statue of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov once dominated the center of Ashgabat.
A statue of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov once dominated the center of Ashgabat.

After early signs of cautious reform, Berdymukhammedov's carefully orchestrated achievements -- as an author and songster, a victorious car racer but hapless jockey, and a knife-throwing sharpshooter, among others -- suggest that his administration has also fostered a cult of personality to bolster his tenure.

Despite having a population of only about 5 million people and the world's fourth-largest natural-gas reserves, tightly controlled Turkmenistan's economy is struggling, with government revenues depleted due in part to unsuccessful energy deals and low world prices for natural gas, the Central Asian country's main export.

Like Niyazov, Berdymukhammedov long relied on subsidized prices for basic goods and utilities to help maintain his grip on power.

Turkmenistan's economy has slowed in recent years, according to the Asian Development Bank, and there have been shortages of staple foods in shops, and the government has decreased or abandoned subsidies on prices of household needs such as water, gas, and electricity.

Government critics and human rights groups say Berdymukhammedov has suppressed dissent and made few changes in the restrictive country since he came to power.