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Qishloq Ovozi

Turkmenistan's wheatfields have been ominously dry this year as the country grapples with extreme weather. (illustrative photo)

It appears the people of Turkmenistan are headed for another hungry winter, the third such winter in as many years. And like the two previous years, it seems this time the government is not even prepared to admit there is a problem.

The harvest is gathered. But so far there is no word as to whether croplands yielded the 1.6 million tons of grain the government targeted for this year, although that seems unlikely.

The Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) website reported on the government's ominous silence on July 22, noting: "The grain harvest in Turkmenistan has finished.... However, there were no reports about successful collection of the state grain target of 1.6 million tons."

The grain production goal in Turkmenistan has been 1.6 million tons since 2011, when President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov claimed (we'll get to Turkmen official claims below) the country hit that figure, allowing Turkmenistan to export "for the first time in its history" 150,000 tons of wheat and 50,000 tons of flour.

ATN reported that the grain harvest for 2015 was 1.4 million tons and in 2017 it was only about 1 million tons. Turkmenistan's government reported the grain harvest was 1.6 million tons in 2016 and just over 1 million tons in 2017.

Drought, Torrential Rain, And A Freak Windstorm

This year, the weather reportedly damaged Turkmenistan's crops. Early spring was unusually dry; then torrential rains hit the country in mid-May, flooding many areas of the country, followed at the end of May by a freak windstorm that carried salt from the dried-up Aral Sea and deposited it on fields in Turkmenistan's northern Dashoguz and eastern Lebap provinces.

It's Raining Salt: Toxic Storm In Central Asia Sparks Health Fears
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By mid-June, some farmers in the northern Dashoguz Province were complaining to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, that the state had not sent the necessary fertilizer or machinery to fields and predicted a poor harvest.

Most of Turkmenistan's people have been coping with flour shortages since autumn 2016. Flour and baked bread is currently rationed, and oftentimes citizens wait in long lines outside state stores and, once inside, need to show identification to purchase their allotment.

ATN noted that government officials are currently on holiday and, "Once their holiday is over, the government will analyze the results of the harvest."

Long lines of people wait in front of a grocery store in Ashgabat to buy vegetable oil, sugar, and flour in late May.
Long lines of people wait in front of a grocery store in Ashgabat to buy vegetable oil, sugar, and flour in late May.

What the government eventually says should be interesting. Failure to meet targets invites an unpleasant response from President Berdymukhammedov.

Last year officials were predicting as late as June 27 that the country would product 1.6 million tons. When it was discovered that production was nearly 40 percent short of that figure, Berdymukhammedov severely criticized many officials, from village and district heads to ministers and the head of the newly-built Garlyk fertilizer plant.

Beatings Reported

Reporting the true figures for this year could cost many officials their jobs and these officials will be aware of this. Azatlyk reported on July 12 that regional heads in the Dashoguz Province were beating leaders of collective farms that failed to meet grain quotas.

If Turkmenistan announces it has met, or nearly met, the target figure, there will be many questions.

Any figures the Turkmen government has provided in the past about virtually any sector of its economy are suspect, and grain production is a prime example.

Berdymukhammedov's predecessor, Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, set the target figure for grain production at 1.2 million tons in 1992. For most of the 1990s the country never even came close to meeting that goal (the harvest for 1996 was some 488,000 tons). Niyazov reprimanded and fired officials for failing to meet grain quotas, just as Berdymukhammedov has been doing.

But in March 1998, as planting was starting, Niyazov told a meeting of the government that if quotas for grain and cotton went unmet, those responsible "at all levels" would be held accountable and could face criminal charges.

That year Turkmenistan met its target of 1.2 million tons, and parliament and the cabinet honored Niyazov by bestowing the "Altyn Oi (Golden Moon)" award upon him (it was Niyazov's third such award and he was the only person ever to receive it). It heralded the era of dubious grain production reports as the country harvested 1.4 million tons in 1999, 1.7 tons in 2000 (which was a drought year), 2 million tons in 2001, 2.3 million in 2002, and by 2006, the last year Niyazov was alive, the country reported the grain harvest was 3.5 million tons.

Of course, in 2006 Turkmenistan's State Institute for Statistics also claimed the country's population was 6.786 million, though the population even today is believed to be about 5 million people.

It would seem pointless for any official to deny this year's harvest is a disaster. The truth will become clear for Turkmenistan's people soon enough.

Toymyrat Bugaev and other members of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
The foreign ministers of the Caspian Sea littoral states -- Sergei Lavrov of Russia (center), Elmar Mammadyarov of Azerbaijan (left), Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran (second from left), Rashid Meredov of Turkmenistan (right), and Kairat Abdrakhmanov of Kazakhstan -- during a meeting in Moscow on December 5

A summit of Caspian Sea littoral states is set for August 12 in Kazakhstan’s port city of Aktau. It is the fifth such summit, but this one is the big one.

After some 22 years and more than 50 meetings of working groups, the five countries -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan -- are reportedly prepared to sign a convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea.

The agreement should resolve many of the issues surrounding the use of the Caspian Sea by the five countries. For more than two decades, these disputes have held up many important projects, notably energy export initiatives such as the proposed Trans-Caspian Pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan that would ideally bring Turkmen gas to European markets.

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at what the agreement means for energy exports from the Caspian and the challenges ahead for the Caspian countries as they push forward with projects that had been put on hold while diplomats spent two decades hashing out the details of an agreement.

RFE/RL's media-relations manager, Muhammad Tahir, moderates the discussion.

From Washington, Theresa Sabonis-Helf, professor of national security strategy at the National War College, joins the talk. From Tbilisi, Giorgi Vashakmadze, the Georgian prime minister’s adviser for the East-West energy corridor, participates. And one of the leading authorities on Caspian energy politics, Robert Cutler, who is a senior research fellow at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, takes part.

Majlis Podcast: The Ramifications Of A New Caspian Sea Accord
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Listen to the podcast above or subscribe to the Majlis on iTunes.

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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 some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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