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

Turkmenistan's Grim Reapers

Police scour countryside to find out where all the grain from a “record harvest” went.
By Murad Novruzov

All across the country, police units are going from farm to farm, forcibly seizing any grain they find. There is no comeback and no compensation for the peasants – who can count themselves lucky not to face prosecution.


This is not the Soviet Union of the 1920s, when Stalin’s men carried out an infamous requisitioning campaign to feed the towns – at enormous cost to the rural population. It is Turkmenistan in January 2004.


What makes this apparent act of desperation by the government so strange is that Turkmen president Saparmurat Niazov recently announced a record grain harvest of 2.5 million tons for 2003. That is three times the amount that, according to officials, is needed to feed the entire population for a year.


As early as July, when the official statistics were already creeping towards the final figure, the president promised to export 700,000 tons of the surplus to Ukraine, which was expecting a shortfall in its own harvest. He was so pleased with the results that he awarded his ministers and provincial governors a 10-day holiday on the spot.


Local experts – who naturally do not want to be identified – say the true figure for the 2003 harvest was 480,000 tons – a fifth of what was claimed, and far short of the amount needed to keep the Turkmen population going.


The bulk of the grain is wheat, used to make the flat unleavened bread which is a staple and, together with tea, often the mainstay of poor people’s diet.


In 2002, a similar 490,000 tons was produced, and the president dismissed the agriculture minister and the heads of four regions for what he admitted was a “failed harvest”.


The requisitioning campaign began after the president, who styles himself Turkmenbashi or “Leader of the Turkmen”, delivered a speech on national television at the beginning of January ordering immediate steps to “protect the state’s grain stock”.


Special squads are now raiding households to hunt down what is officially described as the “surplus” – which in practice appears to mean anything they find.


One Turkmen resident of a village outside the capital Ashgabat told IWPR his story, “Members of a food supply detachment came to my house in the evening. Five or six people turned everything upside down in the house, barns, animal pen and the basement. They used probing rods to check whether there were any sacks of grain hidden in the house or barns.


“Initially, they worked enthusiastically, but after they found nothing they started threatening me, shouting and insulting me. My frightened wife and children were at a complete loss as they watched all this going on.”


But these raids, conducted several times a year, are now such a regular occurrence that this canny farmer had already hidden the grain, which he, not the state, had produced.


“They did not find anything at my place because, like other farmers, we prepare in advance for such visits, but they promised to return,” he said.


Anyone caught unawares stands to lose his entire remaining crop, needed to feed families and livestock over the year. There is no question of compensation, and people who complain have been prosecuted for “sabotaging the food supply” – a charge taken straight out of Stalin-era law books.


Another farmer interviewed by IWPR thought he would be all right, but still lost everything. “I didn’t even think to hide my grain, because I had already settled accounts with the state, handing over as much as was required. I kept only the seed stock which has to be retained for next year’s sowing, and a little grain for my family – farmers don’t keep any more than that,” he said.


“But they took even that…. To my attempts to explain that I would have nothing for sowing in the next season and nothing left to feed my children and animals, and that it was our sole income, they replied that if I protested and ‘spoke out against the policy of the Great Turkmenbashi’, I would be held accountable for crimes against the state – ‘sabotaging the food supply’ – and then my children would definitely go hungry.”


Farmers in Turkmenistan can only sell grain to a purchasing company which has a government monopoly, and which pays a pittance of about two US dollars for 100 kilograms, about a twelfth of the market value. So after delivering the amount they have pledged to the state, many private producers prefer to hang on to the rest and use it for subsistence. And as in Stalin’s day, they conceal it when they have to.


Turkmen officials have not commented on the forcible grain seizures. But agriculture ministry experts have previously spoken about the benefits that private farmers get to mitigate the low purchase price – they do not pay tax on the land they lease from ex-collective farms, and inputs such as seed, fertilisers and tractor servicing are subsidised


Another feature of the early Soviet years that has been resurrected is that the officers involved in the raids – who come from the National Security Committee, the successor to the KGB, as well as the regular police – have reportedly been set targets of their own to achieve.


A woman whose husband is involved in a local farming association told IWPR how she became resigned to losing everything, “To safeguard us from potential problems, my husband and I decided to give them all the grain we had. The members of these food supply detachments are drawn from the local National Security Committee, and one of them is a neighbour of ours, a young fellow. He told us it would be better if we gave them the grain ourselves, so that it would all be nice and quiet for both us and them.”


She can see the position the police find themselves in, “This is not something they invented – they were given orders from above, and if they don’t fulfill certain quotas, they will have problems. I understand everything, you can’t blame them, they are just ‘soldiers of the system’.”


In his New Year address, Turkmenbashi promised that things can only get better – he expects the wheat harvest to rise to 2.8 million tons this year. No doubt the police will be out in force again to make up the difference between the official figures and grim reality.


Murad Novruzov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Ashgabat.


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