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Thousands Mobilized In Impoverished Turkmenistan For State-Led 'Health Day'

Turkmenistan holds mass bike rides to celebrate World Health Day on April 7 every year. 
Turkmenistan holds mass bike rides to celebrate World Health Day on April 7 every year. 

AWAZA, Turkmenistan -- Preparations are in full swing for World Health Day celebrations in Turkmenistan, where authorities have mobilized thousands of state workers and students to take part in various events on April 7.

The annual festivities culminate with a mass bike ride in major cities, with participants wearing matching track suits and pedaling green bikes, color-coordinated with the national flag adorning each bicycle.

The largest cycling rally will take place in the capital, Ashgabat, and ed by authoritarian President Serdar Berdymukhammedov and other dignitaries.

Local RFE/RL correspondents report that thousands of state workers and students have already been removed from work and schools to prepare for the state-organized events.

Some 1,200 public-sector workers from the western Balkan Province arrived in the coastal city of Turkmenbashi on March 26, RFE/RL reported, to take part in the festivities.

Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhammedov takes part in 2022's World Health Day bike ride.
Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhammedov takes part in 2022's World Health Day bike ride.

The employees joined a large group of students to prepare for the massive bike ride in the resort town of Awaza on April 7, local sources told RFE/RL.

Among them are medics, teachers, police officers, and employees from district courts and prosecutors' offices, the sources said. Authorities have ordered each organization to provide between three and 10 employees -- depending on an agency's capacity -- to take part in the ride.

Camera crews from state television can be seen in the town holding meetings with participants.

State TV provides blanket coverage of the annual World Health Day events that include sporting events, concerts, and official gatherings.

Government officials did not respond to RFE/RL's requests for comment on the issue.

In strictly controlled Turkmenistan, officials and ordinary people often refuse to speak to nonstate media.

But speaking on the condition of anonymity, several bike ride participants in Awaza claimed the organizers don't provide the special bikes or outfits they have to use for the event.

Authorities instead ordered the participants' employers -- such as schools or hospitals -- to pay for the clothes and equipment. Many of the employers have, likewise, demanded their workers collect money for the gear.

"The heads of the organizations -- including school directors -- are warning staff that anyone who refuses to pay will be fired regardless of what position they hold," said a teacher from Balkan's Bereket district.

Each participant has to raise about $1,700, the teacher told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity.

The isolated country, which is often compared to North Korea, is known for holding extravagant and colorful parades, concerts, and gatherings with thousands of people in attendance. Participants can spend several weeks preparing for Independence Day parades and similar events every year.

Even during the coronavirus pandemic in April 2020, the country held a bike ride with some 7,000 cyclists nationwide, including 3,500 participants in Ashgabat, state media reported.

Waste Of Public Money?

World Health Day is a public holiday in Turkmenistan as the country’s former president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, has been frequently filmed cycling, horse riding, playing basketball, and working out.

Having ruled the Central Asian state with an iron fist from 2006 to 2022, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov then handed the presidential office to his son -- but earlier this year had himself named "national leader of the Turkmen people" and has taken part in several high-level visits for the country.

Turkmenistan marks World Health Day with nationwide events.
Turkmenistan marks World Health Day with nationwide events.

The trained-dentist turned politician also launched a Month of Health and Happiness campaign every April with many fitness-related events, such as mass walks and other exercising.

While the state media hailed the elder Berdymukhammedov for what it called championing a healthy lifestyle, many Turkmen dismiss it as a public show that enriches his cult of personality.

In 2020, the destitute country built what is known to be the world's largest monument to the bicycle.

Turkmenistan has also entered the Guinness Book of World Records for holding "the largest cycling awareness lesson with 3,246 participants" and for the "longest single-line bicycle parade with 1,995 participants."

The achievements that reflects Ashgabat's obsession with setting records has been criticized as an unnecessary waste of public money that should have been spent to improve people's lives in the poverty-stricken country.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov, who took over presidency in a dubious election in March 2022, continues his father's initiatives. He led the World Health Day bike ride in Ashgabat in April 2022 and is expected to be at the head of this year's rally, too.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service

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