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

Turkmen Pension Shock

As rumours of much-reduced pension payments become fact, pensioners in Turkmenistan are having to consider how they're going to survive. It's the latest in a series of draconian, and unexplained, actions the government has taken to cut public-sector spend
Since January this year, pensioners in Turkmenistan have been discovering the full extent of the reduction in benefits they receive. At first, the news passed by word of mouth, as the authorities tried to reduce the public reaction by simply not talking about it. There was no government decree, no official announcement in the media. Instead, verbal instructions were handed down to the local officials who had to implement them.

Pensioners were duly summoned to their nearest district government building – to be told that their monthly payment was to be cut by an average of thirty per cent. But those on the minimum pension of four hundred and ninety thousand manats, or about 20 US dollars, or who could not show an unbroken work record prior to 1998, were informed they'd lose everything.

Not surprisingly, there's been a furious reaction since the news came out. Elderly people feel they're being arbitrarily deprived of their due after a lifetime of work. Half-hearted attempts to calm them by saying their children should look after them in the traditional Turkmen way have only made people more worried. Many have children who've gone to Russia to work, or who are themselves too poor to be able to help. Farmers commonly fall into the lowest pension category and so will automatically lose everything – but the response they get is that they should live off the land.

At some of the local meetings where pensioners were told the news, people became ill and in some cases suffered heart attacks. A doctor on duty in Ashgabat at the time said the bulk of ambulance admittances involved people of retirement age. One old woman asked not to be sent back home from hospital – there was no point, she explained, since she wouldn’t be able to buy food anyway.

In a country where the mildest public criticism of the authorities is unthinkable, the pension change sparked open manifestations of discontent. Pensioners mounted small demonstrations across the country. Angry people stormed social service buildings in Ashgabad, in Turkmenbashi and other towns to demand a proper explanation.

The fall-out continues as Russian and international media have picked up the story and for once turned their attention to the realities of life in Turkmenistan.

Since the government doesn't discuss its financial affairs in a frank manner, it's hard to guess at why a country pulling in hard currency from gas and cotton should be so hard-up that it has to cut pensions in such a drastic fashion. Civil servants confirm that the government is strapped for cash and is having to hit the pensioners for savings. And not for the first time – the government previously made a significant saving by increasing the retirement age for men and women by two years.

One possible explanation is that the rich earnings from exports never reach the regular state budget, but instead go straight to the president fund which finances the prestige projects which have changed the look of Turkmenistan – but which feed no one.

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