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Turkmenistan: Half-Starved Soldiers Prop Up Economy

Military conscripts forced to work as unpaid labourers say they can barely have enough to eat.
By IWPR staff
The sight of soldiers begging for food on the streets of Turkmenistan has become increasingly common in country where impoverished members of the military are used and abused as an unpaid workforce.

Despite statements from President Saparmurat Niazov about the need to strengthen Turkmenistan’s defence capabilities, conscripts in the armed forces do little soldiering. Instead, they work as hospital orderlies, builders, labourers in the oil, gas and textile industries – anywhere that can’t afford to pay qualified workers.

In theory, the civilian employer rather than the army is responsible for housing, feeding and paying the soldiers, but soldiers say that doesn’t happen. They complain that they are starving.

“We work for free, so we save money for the state, but it does not even manage to feed us properly,” said a conscript who works as an orderly at an Ashgabat hospital. “We are fed by the patients when their relatives bring them food.”

“Our president naively believes that the soldiers get paid 30 per cent of a [full] wage at the production plants and enterprises where they’re deployed,” said a senior army commander on condition of anonymity. “Enterprises which can’t afford to pay qualified workers use the soldiers as free labour.”

A soldier in Mary in southeast Turkmenistan said his unit spent the day labouring and the nights scrounging for food.

“At the end of the working day, one of us would run off without the foreman knowing, and go around the apartments blocks begging for food for us,” he said. “Some people gave food, others money. The feeling of hunger was so intense that we ate all the food he brought from his expedition on the spot and hid the money in our pockets.”

What food is made available is of such poor quality – grains, macaroni, black bread and weak tea without sugar – that soldiers are getting sick. Doctors say poor hygiene is also contributing to a rise in infectious diseases like hepatitis and tuberculosis. The vast majority of soldiers are also anaemic.

“For close to 100 per cent of the soldiers who get hospitalised, their health problems are the result of chronic hunger. Their immunity is weakened and even the young and strong are subject to various diseases,” said one doctor who regularly sees such cases.

It is not surprising that many families pay a bribe to get their son out of conscription.

Niazov, commonly known as Turkmenbashi, appears oblivious to the sorry state of his armed forces. He says the civilian tasks they perform are a good preparation for later life, and that their efforts are important to the economy.

“This is a cheap workforce… that’s where the saving comes from,” he said, talking about his idealised vision where a hired-out soldier receives one third to one half of a full civilian wage, and a smaller proportion goes as a fee to the defence ministry – something that does not happen in reality.

While the conscripted men suffer, many of their officers are profiting from their misery. Commanders get a backhander for privately hiring their men out to work on building sites and farms, or just to clean up private yards.

“We were practically slaves on the building site of the unit commander’s cousin,” said a soldier who served in the Lebap region. “All day long, in 16-hour shifts, we built the walls for a three-storey mansion, and we were fed worse than the dogs guarding the yard.”

A retired army colonel concludes that the country is in no position to defend itself. “There can be no talk of fully-fledged national military structures,” he said.

“In formal terms, everything is in place: a defence ministry, a general staff, and military academies. But instead of an army, there is a group of hungry young people.”

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