Turkmenistan appears poised to build the one white elephant it's overlooked during a 15-year building spree—a subway system under the streets of its deserted capital city.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov mooted the idea during a meeting with Ukrainian construction magnate Vladimir Petruk in Ashgabat this week. During the meeting, Berdymukhamedov reportedly asked Petruk to study the issue. "Due to the rapid growth of the capital city and increase in its population, the esteemed president drew attention to the need to build a metro," state television announced on February 4.
I can't help but take a bit of credit for the concept, which I used to suggest in jest to anyone who would listen when I lived in Ashgabat. In jest, because Ashgabat's low population, sprawl, earthquakes, and lack of traffic make a subway an imprudent investment.
Petruk apparently raised the idea back in 2005 with Berdymukhamedov's predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov. The plans went nowhere that time, perhaps for good reason.
Estimates of Ashgabat's population generally hover between 700,000 and one million. During the Soviet era, one million was the minimum number required for Moscow’s planners to consider building a metro in a city.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s personality cult has so saturated Turkmenistan that people seem to be fed up with purchasing dictator memorabilia. Sluggish demand for calendars featuring portraits of the president (month after month) is reportedly forcing traders to raise their prices in a bid to minimize losses.
The Chronicles of Turkmenistan reports that this year’s version of the calendar featuring Berdymukhamedov striking a pose on each page have not been selling well. The Chronicles suggests the rising price is further damping demand: For one version of the calendars, the price has risen by 25 percent year-on-year, from 45 manats (approximately $16) to 56 manats ($20).
"They are bought only by bureaucrats and businessmen who keep them in their offices to show their loyalty to the president," the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a website run by exiles in Vienna, explained.
Despite losses, the state-run publisher is still printing desk and wall calendars – along with other mementos including giant posters and icon-like charms for car dashboards – because "propaganda is more important than profit in Turkmenistan.”
When you think of cotton and forced labor in Central Asia, you probably think of Uzbekistan. But a new report offers a reminder that Turkmenistan continues to force thousands of citizens into the cotton fields each autumn against their will.
On January 21, Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) released its assessment of the 2013 cotton harvest (by email): “Tens of thousands” of Turkmen, many of them public sector employees, were forced into the fields during the harvest. "Forced labor is still widely practiced throughout the country," the report – authored in collaboration with the Cotton Campaign, an international advocacy group – said.
The findings support reporting last autumn from Radio Free Europe’s Turkmen Service, which said that teachers were shepherding their students to the cotton fields on an "unprecedented" scale, with girls as young as 10 spotted picking cotton.
ATN describes a feudal system wherein government officials lease cotton plots from the state and then force their underlings to perform the manual labor. Like in neighboring Uzbekistan, the farmers (in this case the officials) then sell their harvest to the government at low prices. The government then sells the raw cotton abroad at market prices, says ATN:
We have information that shows that in the majority of cases, when the regional employees of the social sector are used as cheap laborers, the land is owned not by local farmers, but by high-ranking state or regional officials. These officials rent out land under the names of their wives, children, other family members, etc., however they do absolutely nothing by way of harvesting cotton on their land; many of these officials do not even live on this land or even in the region where the land is leased. [...]
Turkmenistan’s copious reserves of natural gas have long afforded residents an unusual luxury: free gas for cooking and heating their homes. But the subsidy encourages waste, which is encapsulated in an anecdote wherein a Turkmen family never bothers turning the gas stove off because it has to pay for matches.
Unsurprisingly, the waste is expensive, perhaps costing the nation of 5 million up to $5 billion a year. So Turkmenistan’s strongman president says homes should be fit with gas meters and consumers will have to start paying.
Speaking at a government meeting on January 17, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov called on local journalists to run a series of television programs and publications on conserving gas, Turkmen state television reported.
"The installation of the meters will allow people to economically consume natural gas, while the maximum payment for using the gas will not create difficulties for the population, for each family," the Associated Press quoted Berdymukhamedov as saying. From AP:
The move comes in the wake of signs that Berdymukhamedov's authoritarian government sees the subsidized domestic energy market as too heavy an economic burden, and is making profitable energy exports a bigger priority. […]
The government has made it clear in recent months the domestic subsidies are too costly. At a conference in October attended by Berdymukhamedov, one delegate publicly announced that free gas to the country's citizens cost Turkmenistan $5 million each year.
Neither Berdymukhamedov nor his government offered any clarification about when the changes would take effect or how much consumers would be charged.
Words are unlikely to do this dizzying video justice. Turkmenistan’s dictator Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who has previously sung for state television, and performed a guitar solo to the delight of his subjects, has added a synthesizer to his musical repertoire.
The video appeared on the state-run Turkmen Owazy television channel’s YouTube page on January 1, but appears to be from last New Year’s.
This being neo-totalitarian Turkmenistan, of course the audience was packed with adoring fans and the stage was adorned with a portrait of Berdymukhamedov.
Authoritarian Turkmenistan has announced results of the country's December 15 parliamentary elections, which offered a total lack of opposition to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s stronghold on power.
According to results released late December 18 by Turkmenistan's Central Electoral Commission, the pro-presidential Democratic Party won 47 of 125 seats up for grabs in the rubber-stamp parliament. The new Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, which was founded on the president’s orders last year, won 14. Trade unions won 33 and women's groups 16, the state-run TDH news agency reported.
This was billed as Turkmenistan's first “multi-party” election, since Ashgabat allowed a second political party to field candidates. But the vote did not offer a genuine choice because all contenders were carefully vetted to ensure loyalty to Berdymukhamedov, who tolerates no dissent and rules with absolute authority over the gas-rich nation of 5 million.
Some may wonder why bother holding an election under such restrictions, but the carefully stage-managed performance offers a veneer of legitimacy to what is arguably one of the world’s few remaining totalitarian states.
Kremlin Web-site Blocked in Turkmenistan
The website Letters.kremlin.ru has been blocked in Turkmenistan since last Thursday (21 November). Using this web resource one could submit letters and complaints to the President of Russia or the Presidential Executive Office.