The celebrations started on April 1 with government minders leading exercises. Students went first, at 6:45 a.m., Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency reported. Market workers assembled for 15 minutes of calisthenics in downtown Ashgabat.
This is the second annual Week of Health and Happiness. At the government meeting on March 29 where he announced this year’s program, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov stressed the importance of the nation's health and ordered that events be held all over the country, the state-run TDH news agency reported.
According to TDH, the Week will conclude with a youth cycling race into the hills above Ashgabat on April 7, World Health Day, along the aptly named Health Path – designed by Berdymukhamedov's predecessor, the late Saparmurat Niyazov.
While Niyazov saw exercise as necessary for everyone but himself (he supposedly used to fly in a helicopter to meet his sweaty and exhausted ministers at the top), Berdymukhamedov leads by example: He took part in the country's first car race last year and won. He’s also an avid racehorse enthusiast.
Sports are generally a top-down affair in Turkmenistan. Last year Berdymukhamedov instructed his desert nation to start playing ice hockey.
Turkmenistan has begun an epic project to turn itself from one of the driest nations on earth into a land of sweeping forests.
The Karakum Desert covers 80 percent of the country’s territory and temperatures often reach 50 degrees Celsius in the summer, lending a decidedly quixotic flavor to the enterprise.
State television showed President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov leading the way March 9 in a mass tree-planting exercise designed to create green belts around cities and villages. "In the current era of power and happiness, Turkmenistan will become a land of lush gardens and fields, green oases, fabulous parks and dense forests, heralding growth and renewal," Neutral Turkmenistan newspaper reported on March 11.
In the first step of his desert-greening plan, Berdymukhamedov signed a decree on February 22 ordering the planting of 3 million deciduous, coniferous, fruit tree and grapevine seedlings.
The “grand greening action” involving 465,000 people – more than one-tenth of the country’s population – went ahead as planned despite the cold weather and a recent snowfall. "Nearly 755,000 seedlings of coniferous trees and other species were planted,” the state-run newspaper reported on March 11. “Steps were also taken to care for the more than 1.6 million saplings planted earlier.”
Footage on state television showed the usual voluble festivities, taking place against the backdrop of the snow-fringed Kopet Dag Mountains on the southern limits of the capital, Ashgabat.
In an awkward contrivance, the official narrative seeks to depict the president as both exceptional and ordinary, so Berdymukhamedov was shown arriving at the wheel of a white foreign-made car, wearing jeans and a casual sports jacket. Girls in national dress greeted him with bunches of flowers.
Turkmenistan’s schoolchildren could be forgiven for getting dizzy. Their president is again changing the number of years they are expected in the classroom.
Effective this fall, Turkmen children will be required to attend 12 years of school, rather than just 10, starting at age six. The state-run Turkmenistan.ru online newspaper reports that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov approved the change last week.
According to the decree, the switch aims "to further improve" secondary schools and to ensure that "the quality of education in them" meets global standards.
Berdymukhamedov's predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov reduced the number of years Turkmen schoolchildren were required in the classroom from 11 years to nine. Berdymukhamedov increased the curriculum to 10 years shortly after he came to power in 2006.
Niyazov – apparently no fan of school – also cut university education from five years to two. Soon after assuming office, Berdymukhamedov restored university curricula to five years.
Turkmenistan has again found itself scraping the bottom of an international index.
Last week, the Business Insider website released its 2013 Misery Index, ranking 197 countries based on unemployment and inflation rates. Turkmenistan, with its 10 percent inflation and 60 percent unemployment, came fifth from last.
"Agriculture employs half the country's workforce but accounts for only eight percent of Turkmenistan's revenue. The country suffers from rampant corruption and mismanagement by its authoritarian government," Business Insider said. "And it isn't going to get any better."
But not everyone is feeling miserable. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov – who calls his current term the “Era of Supreme Happiness of the Stable State” – has ordered one of his palaces converted into apartments to be awarded to families who bear an eighth child by March 8, International Women’s Day, reports Russia's vesti.ru website.
International Women’s Day is a big deal across the former Soviet Union, though it’s not regularly linked to fertility. Berdymukhamedov’s predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, treated population growth in Turkmenistan as a priority, eyeing the country’s sparsely populated deserts as a lush breeding ground.
Following the adoption of Turkmenistan's first-ever media law earlier this year, Ashgabat appears to be inching toward the liberalization of its restrictive media market. But are the changes worth more than the paper they’re printed on?
Russia's Regnum news agency reports that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov – who likes to be called “The Protector” – has withdrawn his protection from most of the country's newspapers, which he used to own single-handedly. That’s because the new media law, which the president signed on January 4, bans the “monopolization of the media.”
Turkmenistan has long languished at the bottom of global media freedom rankings, so observers like Reporters Without Borders, the watchdog, feel a legal ban on media censorship means little.
Berdymukhamedov isn’t going too far. The country's Russian-language mouthpieces, “Turkmenistan” and “Neutral Turkmenistan,” may have acquired a new owner – The Cabinet of Ministers – but the president heads the Cabinet. “Nesil” (Young Generation) will now be published by the Magtymguly youth organization, “Watan” (Homeland) by a trade union, and “Mugallymlar Gazeti” (Teacher's Newspaper) by the Ministry of Education. Of course, these bodies are all loyal to the president, who wields absolute authority. And in case any journalist gets too many crazy ideas, all appointments at all media outlets are done by presidential decree, says Regnum.
Turkmenistan’s president is normally mad for horses. Right now, he’s just mad.
In a televised government meeting February 18, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov fired the head of the national state equine association, accusing him of a complete failure to develop the industry.
Over the period of Allanur Oraznazarov’s tenure at Turkmen Atlary (“Turkmen Horses”), the number of animals in state stables has consistently fallen, the president said. In 2011, the number fell by 64 and then by another 56 in 2012. Berdymukhamedov did not specify the size of Turkmenistan’s current horse stock.
The horse in question is, of course, Turkmenistan’s beloved Akhal-Teke breed, which has been subject of Berdymukhamedov’s undyingly passionate attention for many years.
The problem isn’t just their rearing, but also the following for equine events in the provinces. “The horse sport complexes built in the velayats are totally empty, there are no events taking place there,” Berdymukhamedov said.
He also complained about the quality of work in horse-rearing facilities, the poor standard of veterinary medicine, treatment and specialists. “That’s why our horse-breeders can’t take part in competitions abroad,” he said.
That is an interesting observation that sounds almost like an excuse for why the much-vaunted Akhal-Tekes have never been entered into international competition, despite claims that they are unmatched in all respects.
This is the first time that Berdymukhamedov has so baldly stated that the horse-rearing industry is in a state of disarray. It is a particularly crushing admission when it is considered that the sector is officially administered under the personal tutelage of the president as “a great horse estimator and connoisseur.”
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan likes to call his second term the “Era of Supreme Happiness of the Stable State” and refer to himself as “The Protector.” Some of his citizens might call themselves his “inmates.”
The Chronicles of Turkmenistan reports that secret blacklists barring certain individuals from leaving the country continue to exist, much as they did during the “Golden Age” of Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in office in late 2006.
The Chronicles website, run by Turkmen exiles in Vienna, says 48 Turkmen citizens were prevented from boarding Istanbul-, Dubai- and Moscow-bound flights on just one recent day. Despite having tickets and brand-new biometric passports, border guards told the grounded travelers on January 24 that they were banned from leaving the country. "However, no documents were produced to the frustrated passengers, nor reasons given for the ban on leaving," the website said.
When these would-be travellers sought explanations from the Border and Migration Service, they were sent to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of National Security. Both maintained they had nothing to do with the decision, said the report.
Unsuspecting Turkmen citizens often do not know that their names are on the secret blacklists until they attempt to pass through immigration. Others reportedly have been pulled off airplanes on the tarmac.
A wedding is usually a special day for two people in love. But in the land of The Protector, three’s the charm.
Couples tying the knot in the famously overbearing state are now being forced to pose for their keepsake photo before a portrait of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported this week.
The website, run by Turkmen exiles in Vienna, says couples who want to register their marriage have to pay photographers at registry offices – known as Palaces of Happiness – for a photo album containing at least three photos of the newlyweds taken with a portrait of The Protector, as Berdymukhamedov likes to be known.
It is unknown whether the gimmick was dreamed up by registrars and photographers as a money-making scam or whether orders were received from on high to insert The Protector into every couple’s married life. But the report says the new requirement has appeared not only in the capital, Ashgabat, but also in other major towns.
Berdymukhamedov has slightly less of a reputation for eccentricity than his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, whose antics included building a giant golden statue of himself, which rotated with the sun, and renaming months after himself and his family. Yet Berdymukhamedov is no shrinking violet: Like his predecessor, who went by the title Turkmenbashi (“Head of the Turkmens”), all over the country The Protector has plastered photos of himself staring down upon his subjects. He even appears as a dashboard good-luck charm in taxicabs.
If there is one country in Central Asia that might expect to be spared electricity woes, it should be Turkmenistan.
But a failure at a power plant in the eastern town of Mary over the New Year holiday has highlighted another area where reforms are urgently needed. The late-December failure knocked out half the plant’s capacity, leaving many in Turkmenistan’s eastern provinces without electricity. In Mary, the country’s fourth-largest city, power was provided only intermittently over a three-day period.
In the village of Farab, which lies just across the border from Bukhara, in Uzbekistan, local people prepared for the New Year without electricity, household gas or heating.
“Since a lot of kindergartens and schools weren’t heated, the children had to stay home, which people warmed with diesel-powered heaters,” said Farab resident Nasiba. “People were cooking in the street, some with firewood, some with small kerosene stoves, and the gas supply was so weak it took hours even to boil a kettle.”
The Mary power plant also creates export electricity for neighbors Afghanistan and Iran.
Afghanistan’s official Bakhtar news agency reported on a disruption in supplies to Herat Province in western Afghanistan, which, it said on January 2, had lasted two weeks already.
The crisis has caused heads to roll. Before the New Year, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov severely reprimanded the energy minister and fired the deputy head of the emergency situations committee.
On January 2, Berdymukhamedov fired Mary power plant chief Altymyrat Gurbangeldiyev. At the same government meeting, he instructed Energy Minister Myrat Artykov to travel to Mary to take all necessary measures to solve the issues. Artykov promised prompt action.
Throughout the former Soviet world, New Year’s is the time when Santa Claus – or Father Frost as he’s known in the Russian-speaking tradition – hands out presents. This year, Turkmenistan’s president played the role himself and gave his people the gift of cheap meat.
Freebies subsidized by the country’s natural-gas-generated revenues have long been a fixture of life in the country. For more than 10 years, Turkmens have received free water, household gas and rations of salt.
And now, in anticipation of 2013, butchers in Ashgabat have been selling 1 kilogram of meat for about $3.50 – that’s $2.50 lower than the normal price – triggering much excitement among buyers.
The government is in a constant battle with vendors over meat prices. Official prices shown in displays stand at $4.20 per kilo, although the real cost to buyers is actually $6. In food markets, as with the exchange rate for the Turkmen manat, there are often major discrepancies between official and real-life figures.
The meat discount follows an edict last week issued by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. In a Cabinet meeting on December 28, he instructed officials, including the trade minister and Ashgabat mayor, to “provide the capital and the regions with all required foodstuffs” to ensure the people of Turkmenistan spend their holidays in an upbeat mood.
For all the war-economy flavor of the injunction, the news was greeted with a surge of enthusiasm in Ashgabat.
On the morning of Saturday, December 29, the entrance was barred to the meat section at the city’s Tekinsky Bazaar, which led to the formation of a long line. That in turn drew unwanted attention from passersby.