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EU Takes Ashgabat's Word -- And Turkmenistan Misses Out On Millions In Coronavirus Aid

Starting with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the official line in Turkmenistan is that the country is a fantastic place that lacks nothing. The buildings are white and shiny, and the future is bright and full of promise.
Starting with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the official line in Turkmenistan is that the country is a fantastic place that lacks nothing. The buildings are white and shiny, and the future is bright and full of promise.

Turkmenistan is a country mostly covered by deserts, which naturally are known for their mirages.

From a distance, people see things in the desert that are not actually there -- often water or even an oasis.

Such mirages of reality are what the Turkmen government wants people outside Turkmenistan to see.

Starting with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, officials say Turkmenistan is a fantastic place that lacks nothing. The buildings are white and shiny, the country's 6 million people are happy, and the future is bright and full of promise.

But the people who live there are far too aware of a completely different reality.

Many of them line up outside stores and banks in the early morning, many hours before they open, hoping that by doing so they might be fortunate enough to get flour, sugar, or money before it runs out again as it has so many times before in the past four years.

Lately, many people have even been reduced to rummaging through garbage to find pieces of stale bread and other scraps.

Most people outside Turkmenistan actually know what is happening inside the country and give little credence to any of the Turkmen government's stories of great achievements.

But someone just recently did believe one of the Turkmen authorities' claims and it cost the country badly needed outside help.

Vulnerable Countries

The pro-Turkmen government website reported on April 15 that the European Union was preparing a plan, Team Europe, to provide some 20 billion euros (about $22 billion) to help vulnerable countries cope with the effects of the coronavirus, both the health and economic issues.

That includes help for Central Asian countries, but only Kyrgyzstan (36 million euros/$39.1 million), Tajikistan (48 million euros/$52.2 million), and Uzbekistan (36 million euros/$39.1 million) will receive that EU aid.

Why not Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan?

Because according to the economic figures the governments of those two countries provided, they do not qualify under EU criteria.

The EU actually uses guidelines provided by the World Bank.

According to World Bank rankings, "based on estimates of gross national income (GNI) per capita," Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are in the category of upper middle-income countries, countries where the average yearly wage is between $4,086 and $12,615.

An April 16 report from the Hornika Turkmenistana website, which is run from Europe by Turkmen activists who fled Turkmenistan, noted that the Turkmen government has released the average yearly wage figure in Turkmenistan as $7,065.

But the report also notes that this figure is based on the official exchange rate inside Turkmenistan, which is 3.5 manats to one dollar. At the black-market rate, which is closer to the real value of the manat, the average yearly wage is about $1,200.

For the record, that would put Turkmenistan at the lower end of the lower middle-income countries and qualify the country for the EU aid. The kind of financial support that cash-starved Turkmenistan could really use as it battles a years-long economic crisis.

There were already shortages of basic goods in Turkmenistan, starting in 2016.

In the current situation, with all the neighboring countries having registered cases of coronavirus, Turkmenistan has sealed off its borders more tightly than ever before. Trucks carrying goods wait days on the Iranian and Kazakh sides of the Turkmen border.

Prices are steadily climbing for what food and basic goods are available.

Thermometer Troubles

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, reported that police in the capital, Ashgabat, are now required to measure the temperatures of people at the entrances to the city, at bus stations, in schools, and at other public facilities.

The only problem is that the state has not given the police the thermometers to measure people's temperature. The police were instructed to buy them with their own money.

If Turkmen authorities told the truth about the situation in the country, especially the plight of the people there, the EU would probably be giving Turkmenistan tens of millions of euros, enough to buy thermometers for the police, for example, and then some.

Though EU officials might have had some questions about the approximately $24-$25 billion stashed in German banks that reportedly belongs to unknown people in Turkmenistan.

But part of the mirage the Turkmen government creates is that the energy-rich country is so well-off it does not need such "charity."

A recent example of that occurred when the U.S. Embassy released a statement on April 6 thanking the Turkmen government for helping "dozens of U.S. citizens in Turkmenistan in returning to the United States."

The statement also mentioned that "[the] United States has made available more than $920,000 in health assistance for Turkmenistan to help prepare laboratory systems, activate case-finding and event-based surveillance, support technical experts for response and preparedness, bolster risk communication, and more" to protect Turkmenistan against the COVID-19 pandemic. It also said Washington had "invested approximately $21 million in health care and more than $201 million in total assistance to Turkmenistan over the past 20 years."

Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry immediately released a statement claiming that this information was "false," but added that the country had contracted U.S. companies to help 167 projects with a combined cost of some $3.5 billion.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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