Turkmen Troops Double Up as Nurses and Bakers

State looks to plug holes in budget by putting soldiers to work in the public sector.

Turkmen Troops Double Up as Nurses and Bakers

State looks to plug holes in budget by putting soldiers to work in the public sector.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

President Saparmurat Niazov is planning to sack around 15,000 nurses and health care workers and replace them with army conscripts to save the state money.

By the end of this month, Turkmen soldiers will be swapping their khaki fatigues for white hospital gowns and taking up new posts in hospitals across the former Soviet republic, replacing around a third of the medical workforce sacked by presidential decree on February 11.

A number of medical staff have told IWPR that they are extremely worried by the development, saying that standards are bound to fall.

One nurse from a military hospital in Ashgabat said that it already has young conscripts working as nurses and other support staff. “Soldiers are not yet trusted to give injections - but who knows what awaits us in the future,” she said.

And one doctor, who gave her name as Hurma Nadirova, said, “Replacing sacked nurses with soldiers won’t lead to anything good. The most probable outcome is that it will completely destroy the Turkmen health system.”

Hospitals are merely the latest place where the Turkmen army has turned up for duty.

Conscripts are already working in the public sector – for instance, as lorry drivers, bakers, train attendants and traffic cops – for no extra wages, saving the state a great deal of money.

Traditionally, the army has always had so-called “construction battalions” which were used for public sector work – but analysts now fear that the forces are now being used as cheap labour by a government desperate to fill holes in its budget.

As a result, some young men are ending their military service without ever firing a weapon. “I have never held a submachine gun in my hands in these two years, or any other kind of weapon,” ex-conscript Geldymurat told IWPR.

His former comrade Muratgeldy fared little better. “We had some Kalashnikov rifles in our unit, but there were no bullets,” he said.

News that medical personnel are the next to be replaced with young soldiers appalled Leonid Komarovsky, an American citizen who spent a lot of time in Turkmenistan looking after business interests before being arrested in the round-up following an alleged assassination attempt on Niazov in November 2002. He was held for 150 days in a Turkmen prison.

“In any civilised nation, in order to become a nurse or a medical orderly you need between two and four years of training. What kind of medical service will these conscripts be providing?” he asked.

Komarovsky told IWPR that there is a two-tier medical system in place, with the finest specialists working in hospitals dedicated to treating high-ranking officials. “There will be no conscript nurses in these places. Niazov wouldn’t trust them to treat himself, but it’s okay for his people.”

He said the use of conscripts is not a new idea, although it is becoming increasingly common, “Niazov is trying to fill gaps in his budget by using the soldiers as free labour. In general, it is not a defence army - conscripts are used for all kinds of jobs.”

Komarovsky alleges that the Turkmen treasury’s coffers have been hit hard by corruption, leading to budget difficulties which the state is now trying to fix by using its soldiers as free labour, “If all the revenue from the sale of gas and oil went directly into the state coffers, there would be no budget gaps to fill.”

Significant savings have already been made by using the army. The state traffic police was transferred from the internal affairs department to the defence ministry around a year ago, creating the State Road Patrol Service of Turkmenistan, staffed by conscripts. Again, the state doesn’t have to pay the soldiers extra money for this work.

While the state media has welcomed the use of soldiers in other public sector areas, some officials admit that the practise has little to recommend it.

“It costs us a lot to keep these soldiers on staff,” said one railway administration official, who did not want to be named. “They are working without getting paid, but we still have to feed and dress them – and the state does not provide funds for that.”

Around 200 soldiers have been serving in the Ashgabat Automobile Transport Firm driving heavy goods vehicles for some time now, and there are similar plans to train conscripts to drive passenger trolleybuses.

In cities, towns and villages across Turkmenistan, khaki-clad workers can be seen cleaning streets and parks, taking out garbage, watering flowers and planting trees.

In addition to communal services, the conscripts have also been turning their hands to bread-baking, although the poor quality of their products are a standing joke among residents, who complain about its bland taste. But such arguments are overwhelmed by the savings made by the state.

Support our journalists