A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL
Authorities in Turkmenistan have announced that the country will conduct a presidential election on February 12, 2017. Incumbent President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is certain -- barring sickness or death -- to win a third term in office.
Other presidential candidates will appear, as they have the last two times Berdymukhammedov has run for president -- on February 11, 2007, and February 12, 2012. As was true in the previous two presidential elections, these "rival" candidates will probably be people little known to the Turkmen public, participating in the campaign like actors in a staged production.
The campaign and its results will be similar to what's been seen before in Turkmenistan. Berdymukhammedov took 89 percent of the vote in 2007 and 97 percent of the vote in 2012.
The big difference between the upcoming election and those previous two polls is that February 2017 is coming at arguably the worst of times in independent Turkmenistan's 25-year history.
So I'm curious what Berdymukhammedov tells his people this time around. Why should Turkmen voters show up at polling centers on February 12 to cast their ballots for the current president, the person they called "Arkadag" (The Protector)?
I am not Berdymukhammedov's speechwriter, but I am concerned he might miss some things in the campaign speeches he delivers -- if he even bothers to campaign, that is.
In the interest of presenting a well-rounded portrayal of the situation in Turkmenistan, I thought I would write a speech for the Turkmen president, in his own style.
Note: The situation in Turkmenistan is no laughing matter, and I am aware of that. If the tone of this blog post is lighthearted, its message is very serious.
Greetings, great and extraordinarily patient people of Turkmenistan!
I speak to you now, asking for your vote in the upcoming presidential election.
I could make a lot of promises about the future, and maybe some of them could even really happen.
But today I choose to speak about the last five years of my presidency.
When I asked for your vote in 2012, we were just coming off a year, 2011, in which we saw 14.7 percent GDP growth, a figure given by the World Bank.
Times are different now. Last year, we registered 6.5 percent GDP growth, according to the World Bank, and this year it looks like that figure will drop slightly to 6.2 percent.
As I and other officials have told you, the global economic crisis -- and not your government -- is to blame for this decrease.
These new external economic problems pose new challenges for Turkmenistan.
Five years ago, the price of natural gas on world markets was more than twice what it is today. I don't have to tell you that gas is almost the only thing we export, and in 2012 Turkmenistan appeared to be well on its way to diversifying its gas export routes. We exported gas to three customers, and there were plans to open two new routes to major markets.
As I stand before you today, we are exporting to only two customers: China and Iran.
We are sorry that our friend Russia decided at the start of 2015 not to purchase any more gas from Turkmenistan and to instead buy gas from our friend Uzbekistan.
It's true. Some of the gas we export to China goes toward paying our multibillion-dollar debt to that country. It's also true that Iran pays with goods, not money.
But we haven't given up on projects to build a pipeline to India and another across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan, where our natural gas can be sent to countries in Europe. Admittedly, those plans no longer look so promising.
Our idea for a trans-Caspian pipeline to export gas to Europe has not yet been realized, and might never be, due to the objections of our Caspian littoral neighbors Russia and Iran.
Our government and media continue to report about building the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline on the territory of Turkmenistan. We cannot show you any pictures of this construction, but the government will continue to remind you of progress in constructing the pipeline.
Pay no attention to those who call TAPI a "virtual" pipeline.
Five years ago, in northwestern Afghanistan, just across our border, people lived in relative peace. That is no longer the case. There is now fighting in all the Afghan provinces bordering Turkmenistan. So there might be some small delays constructing the pipeline through Afghanistan. The same goes for Pakistan's southern Balochistan region, which is also on TAPI's route.
And since I mentioned Afghanistan, I want to repeat the words of other Turkmen government officials and tell you that there is no security problem along our border with Afghanistan. Don't listen to stories you might hear of our soldiers or border guards being involved in fighting -- or even being killed -- along the Afghan border.
And don't worry that earlier this year we conducted the largest mobilization of our armed forces ever in our 25-year history and have recently been purchasing new weapons, including a missile system from China.
Our policy of positive neutrality, recognized by the UN, has always been our best protection, and it is now enshrined in our constitution -- part of the same changes adopted in September that will make my third term in office a seven-year term instead of those five-years terms I've previously served.
But enough about the outside world. Let's look at our achievements here at home over the last five years.
As we told you earlier this year, we have reached the point in our development where the state no longer needs to provide you, its citizens, with subsidies. Turkmenistan's people are well enough off now that you do not need free electricity, gas, or water anymore, so we will soon halt these unnecessary gifts. But rest assured, these utilities will continue to be provided to you intermittently.
We still face economic challenges. Some of you have lost your jobs recently, especially those in the gas and oil sector. Having brought that up, let me now mention these tales told by foreign media about unemployment in Turkmenistan being more than 50 percent.
How could the foreign press and other outside organizations know this? We don't let them in.
And during my third term, this government will continue to reject visa applications from undesirable foreigners seeking to come to Turkmenistan for sinister reasons of trying to obtain objective information.
Our government provides facts and figures on all the things people outside the country need to know about Turkmenistan. It's all there on government websites and in state media.
Some of you who are working are not receiving your wages on time. In some cases, arrears go back several months.
It is especially to you that I wish to express my gratitude, because many of you, after this wait, had your wages garnished to pay for our country to build the facilities necessary to host the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games we are hosting in our capital, Ashgabat, next year.
Did I say "garnished"? Forgive me. I meant to say the money you are "voluntarily" giving to help build facilities for those games. "Voluntarily" -- that's what it said on those papers that officials gave you to sign when you agreed to contribute money from your salaries.
Turkmenistan continues to produce some of the highest quality basic goods. Most of you have seen the long lines in front of our stores. Turkmenistan's products are so good people are willing to queue up outside stores to wait for their chance to buy a rationed amount of these basic products.
Don't forget to bring your documents with you. We do enforce purchase limits for all families.
And I'll address those accusations of food shortages and higher prices for basic goods now by saying...no comment.
To those of you who smoke, I say first: Shame on you. It's bad for your health. But I'll add that you can now buy one pack of cigarettes for less than $20. That's already an improvement from just a couple of months ago. True, we're limiting the number of packs you can buy, but, again, it's a bad habit.
I'm talking about dollars here, but I don't need to remind you that dollar transactions are illegal now. Your government has no intention of helping these black markets that are offering seven or more manats, our national currency, for one U.S. dollar. Turkmenistan's government stands by its official rate of 3.5 manats to one U.S. dollar.
Let me conclude by saying that these hard times, caused again by the economic hardships outside Turkmenistan, have not stopped this government from spending money on magnificent projects. Look at Ashgabat, the "White City," recognized in 2013 by the Guinness Book of Records as having the highest density of white marble-clad buildings.
That's something to be proud of.
I know most of you don't live or work in any these buildings -- very few people do -- but you do sometimes pass them. They look good, don't you think?
And I'll add that the city looks much better without all those air conditioners local authorities ordered to be removed from the outside of buildings. These were only needed for the four or five months of the year when the temperature was over 40 Celsius anyway, so most of the year they were useless.
And work continues at Awaza, our resort area on the Caspian Sea. We've spent billions of dollars designing Awaza and building the luxurious five-star hotels that line our Caspian coast there, hotels that already have 20 to 30 percent occupancy, on occasion.
The government continues to support the arts. I don't need to remind anyone about that massive statue of yours truly on horseback in downtown Ashgabat that was unveiled in May 2015. That gold leaf really brings out the character in that work, don't you think?
And I personally have been hard at work writing new books for my people to read -- 40 so far, seven this year alone. I have been working equally hard writing new songs and will continue to appear on state television performing them for you.
To close, I want to speak to each and every one of you, the people of Turkmenistan, whether you're employed, or partly employed, or unemployed, a supporter of the government or one of those being treated at state expense for psychological problems, those of you who are content and those who authorities are currently trying to help find the correct, state-approved path to inner happiness.
Cast your vote for me, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, on February 12. I've been your president for 10 years, and thanks to another of those amendments passed in September, there is no age limit for running for president now, so I'll be your president for who knows how long?
Thanks and vote on election day! We'll know if you don't.
Farruh Yusupov and Toymyrat Bugaev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
Bruce Pannier studied at Tashkent State University in summer 1990, lived in villages in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in 1992-1993, and has been covering Central Asia as a journalist since 1995.