Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Grains of Truth in Turkmenistan
Yet another year of high reported grain production in Turkmenistan suggests that agriculture is on the up and the country is able to feed itself with plenty to spare. But the rosy picture painted by officials masks a grimmer reality, where much of an already poor harvest goes to waste, and officials are so desperate to please their superiors that they beg, borrow and steal grain to keep the figures looking good.
When the first statistics started coming in over the summer, the government of President Saparmurat Niazov, otherwise known as Turkmenbashi, was quick to claim massive success.
At an official 2.5 million tonnes, revised down from the 3.1 million tonnes that Turkmenbashi said had been achieved in July, the final harvest figure actually represents a significant fall on last year's record of 2.8 million.
Even the lower figure would work out at nearly half a tonne of grain – most of it wheat - annually for every man, woman and child in this small nation of five million people. According to Turkmenbashi, “If we provide each citizen with 160 kilogrammes of flour, then it can be said that we have done our duty.”
However, the discussion is somewhat academic since all the indications are that the statistics are fantasy. What may be significant, however is that the final figure for this year is a tacit admission that the target of 3.1 million figures was missed by a long shot.
The president remained upbeat about the final harvest – and happy to take the credit.
“I have personally developed a detailed programme for our sacred nation to achieve grain independence…. Today we are reaping its lavish benefits," he told viewers on state-run television. "For the sixth year, Turkmenistan has fully provided itself with bread. And for the fifth time, the volume of wheat produced on Turkmen land has exceeded two million tonnes. This means that the country has reliable emergency stocks of grain, and in years to come it will be able to sell it on the international market,”
It is one thing to claim ambitious headline figures, and another to ensure that there is actually bread on the table. And in an authoritarian Turkmenistan, the president's word is law, so officials have to do their best to make it look that the plan has indeed been fulfilled.
“It is like a chain, the minister gives his deputies the task of delivering a certain amount of flour, they assign the task to provincial chiefs, and so on and so on," said a local government official who asked to remain anonymous.
Another official, working in the food industry, estimates that this year's true harvest was barely 800,000 tonnes, a third of the claimed figure. And he said mismanagement and the construction of lie upon lie means that the country ends up simultaneously claiming success and secretly buying in food.
“From the moment the fields are sown, Turkmenbashi [sets targets] for the grain that must be harvested, and this becomes cast in stone," he said. "Then he sets such short deadlines for the harvest that it is immediately obvious the farmers will gather a meagre and unripe harvest. But no one can object.
"So then you have a situation where there is in fact three times less grain than the official statistics say. And we have to secretly buy flour and grain in Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakstan and pass it off as our own."
Since August this year, swingeing restrictions, including 100 per cent excise tariff, were slapped on flour imports – officially because Turkmen agriculture was performing so well that the country already had excess domestic supplies.
Business have found their containers held at the border and customs clearance denied, ostensibly because of the new rules. “My container of flour has been at customs for over a month now, and even though I've presented all the necessary documents I cannot get my goods back….I've paid all the taxes and duties, but they tell me our country does not need the flour I have imported,” said one importer.
This trader may share the same fate as other businessmen, who say their grain is being appropriated and sold by officials desperate to cover up shortages.
One wholesale importer recalled, “Some people came to me from the local government office and said that I must hand my flour over to the state at purchase price. I sell high-quality Kazak flour, which I source myself because people here prefer to buy imported flour for their own use.
"They sealed my container and I had no option but to sell my goods to the state at extortionately slashed prices, although the actual cost price was much higher.”
Other businessmen give similar accounts. “The Russian flour that was effectively confiscated from me was then sold in the state shops located at Ashgabat's central market," said disgruntled trader. "The labels said the flour was Turkmen, from the Lebap region. In other words, they are selling high-quality imports as Turkmen flour.”
A local government source confirmed that the practice was a common one, saying, "Frequently, when the state purchases of imported flour are insufficient, local government administrations use their authority to simply take flour away from private businessmen under all kinds of pretexts, paying them only the cost of the flour and ignoring transport costs, duties and so on.”
The underlying problem facing Turkmen agriculture is how to manage the transition away from the centrally planned economy in a country where arable land is in short supply and irrigation is essential.
The solution has been to change the system on paper but not in practice. While the old collectives have been broken up and farmers are allowed to lease land from the state, they are still forced to grow wheat or cotton for the government - and are even set Soviet-style quotas so that the country as a whole fulfills the latest annual plan.
The state monopoly buyer acquires the harvest at knock-down prices, so that many farmers complain they are working at a loss. In recent years, the authorities have even sent teams round to search farms for concealed grain stocks, in a move redolent of Stalin's policy of requisitioning food from hungry peasants.
Farmers forced to meet impossible targets end up producing an inferior product. “To meet the president’s programme for a rapid, above-plan harvest, the grain starts being reaped from the fields when it is still green and unripe. So then it starts rotting in the grain warehouses," said the head of a farming association in the central province of Ahal. "If you don't fulfil the plan, or you say that the grain is rotting, you can lose your job. The rotten grain is often reprocessed, so you can just imagine what the flour is like."
Ashgabat residents agree that the flour produced from this overhasty process is poor. One said, “The bread that I bake at home is inedible the next day, it starts to smell sour and becomes slimy. I started buying bread baked at the market, but the same thing happened.
"The dough is dark and slippery, but bread is the basis of the Turkmen diet. So where's all the bread made from the [fine quality] Ak-Bugdai grain that the president goes on about?”
One villlager elder who had come into the city to buy food had the same unpatriotic view of his own country's grain. "Bread baked from Turkmen flour is hard and earthy in colour, and we prefer to buy Kazak flour. It may be more expensive, but bread baked from it is pleasing to both the eye and the stomach.”
Such concerns will not be aired on tightly controlled media, where the pretence will continue that all is well. The only thunderclouds that ever appear on the horizon are the terse reports that some official has been sacked for economic failures.
In the latest ritual sackings, the governors of Lebap and Mary regions were dismissed earlier in October.
"You know it's a bad omen already when a number of high-ranking officials are dismissed in disgrace at harvest time,” said one agricultural industry insider on condition of anonymity.
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