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

Turkmenistan: Niazov's Woeful Record

Media hype over Turkmenistan's "great" achievements during its first ten years of independence mask a grim and depressing reality.
By Polina Mikhailova

State-controlled newspapers here marked the tenth anniversary of the Turkmenistan's independence with glowing accounts of the nation's achievements under the leadership of president-for-life Saparmurat Niazov.


Ordinary people, however, perceive their country as little more than a raw materials' gold mine for the developed world. Multi-billion dollar revenues generated by oil and gas extraction flow no further than Niazov's seemingly bottomless pockets.


To transform Turkmenistan into an advanced and developed economy in a mere 10 years would indeed have been an achievement. Instead, we find the last decade has all but reduced the country to ruin.


Turkmenbashi, as Niazov is known, holds all executive power - he is head of state and appoints all senior officials in national, regional, city and even district administrations. Soon, people joke, he'll be appointing the cleaners too.


The president's decisions, however crazy, are rubber-stamped by parliament, the Khalkh Maslakhati.


In Turkmenistan, elections are a purely formal exercise. Candidate lists are approved by the national security committee and the president. The assembly is little more than an annual get-together of old men where the president's policies are approved in exchange for handsome gifts.


As Niazov explained on national television - the country has no need for democracy. Turkmenistan's democracy, he said, is love for the homeland.


The president's authoritarian style of government has undermined all efforts to shift the economy onto a modern, market-oriented footing. Hypocrisy, double standards and corruption are endemic within the ruling elite.


The fact that the national currency is not convertible is a major problem. The official exchange rate of 5,230 manats to the US dollar is available only to government officials. Others have to rely on the black market where one dollar buys 22,000 manats. Conducting business at such a rate has forced many non-state sector enterprises into bankruptcy.


In agriculture the transition to the free-market has also been accompanied by violations. Turkmenbashi has allowed state-owned lands to be rented or sold. But few seem to know how land is allocated, who is entitled to it and how much it costs. Farmers are convinced the process is corrupt.


Farmer Atamurad Italmazov from the Lebap region has been granted land on lease. "But I can't manage as I see fit," he explained. "Those on high give me a plan for sowing cotton and grain. The entire harvest goes to the state. Our family is supported by my wife's traditional craft work."


Some lease farmers in the Mary region paid dearly when they tried to show some initiative. "We're not allowed to sow anything on the leased land except cotton and grain," said Igdir Elamanov. "This spring, together with my brothers, we sowed rice, but district officials came and forced us to re-plough the entire field."


Farmers say they cannot feed their families under the present system. Once a year they receive a payment from the state for the harvest of 4 or 5 million manats (200-250 dollars). But it falls well short of what is required to pay for the lease, next year's seed, rental of equipment and machinery, fertiliser and labour.


Meanwhile, Turkmenbashi has declared that the republic should achieve self-sufficiency in food production by 2010. The country's ever-enthusiastic state-controlled media claim we've achieved this already.


The statistics tell a different story, however. Figures from the National Institute of Statistics and Information indicate private enterprises, which make up 84 per cent of registered legal entities in the country, are primarily engaged in importing goods. During 2000 these businesses saw a five-fold increase in the volume of imports.


"For a long time we've practiced double accounting," admitted an employee at the institute. "We were officially warned that there is one set of figures for the media, and then the real figures."


Turkmenistan's media claims a record grain harvest of two million tons this year. Farmers reckon the real figure is a quarter that amount. Likewise national newspapers boast a cotton harvest of 1.3 million tons. Farmers, meanwhile, recall that even during bumper years, such quantities were rarely reached.


Elsewhere, Turkmenbashi's acclaimed golden touch in the cultural arena provokes scathing criticism from some of the country's leading arts figures.


"Achievements are indeed unprecedented, unprecedentedly bad," said one indignant well-known actor-director. "Within a short time Turkmenbashi has brought to naught the efforts of an entire epoch. He closed down the film studio, one of the best in the former Soviet Union, closed down the opera and ballet theater, the Academy of Sciences and turned the conservatory into the 'department of national instruments'".


Last but not least, Turkmenbashi has strangled the country's free press. There are no private newspapers or foreign media publications. Instead, the country's press trumpets the glories of ten years of independence and the achievements wrought by our president-for-life.


Polina Mikhailova is a pseudonym of a journalist in Ashgabat


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