Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Turkmen Farmers Wary of Latest Reform Plan

A pledge by Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov to give farmers greater freedom from the state is unlikely to remove the many restrictions that retard the agricultural sector, local observers say.

Berdymuhammedov told a March 6 meeting of the Council of Elders, held in the eastern Lebap region, that agricultural reforms planned by his government would make farmers’ associations more independent and give farmers the right to manage their own affairs and choose who they wanted to do business with.

“We have to gradual shift the sector over to a commercial footing, make farmers feel they truly own the land, and offer support to farmers’ associations and private plots.

A 1996 reform put an end to Soviet-style collective farms, but the system was partly replicated in the new farmers’ associations which kept leaseholders within a larger structure. These are used for cotton and grain production, over which the state continues to exert control, directing what is planted and buying it at fixed prices.

In addition, rural households generally have their own small plot of land on which they grow crops for subsistence or for sale.

Since coming to power two years ago, Berdymuhammedov has talked of the need for a more flexible approach to agriculture. So far this has translated into a strategic plan for agricultural reform, launched in 2007, and two laws setting out the rights and responsibilities of farmers’ associations, as well as procedures for setting new ones up, which require the Turkmen president’s approval.

NBCentralAsia observers say these initiatives have yet to effect change on the ground, because state control continues to be all-pervasive, the authorities dictate what is grown and how it is sold, and farmland is only held on a long-term lease, rather than in full ownership.

Current legislation allows ownership of land only if it is used for housing and small household plots.

Leasehold farmers say as long as these negative factors remain unchanged, no reform-minded initiative is going to work.

“What kind of independence can there be as long as the head of state personally decides what farm machinery is to be bought, which regions are to get it, and what crops are to be grown?” asked one commentator based in the northern province of Dashoguz.

He asked how farmers could be made to feel they owned the land when in reality they were no more than temporary tenants.

A farmer from Sakarchag in the southeastern Mary region said, “At the moment, we are all forced to plant either cotton or wheat, even though farmers want to grow things that make them a profit.”

Another farmer from Lebap in the east said he was less than optimistic about the latest reform declarations. “They aren’t going to let us decide anything for ourselves,” he said.

A resident of Ahal region in south-central Turkmenistan, meanwhile, said he believed “the state wants to retain its control over agriculture in general and over each leaseholder individually”.

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)