More -- And Less -- Than Meets the Eye for First Private Newspaper in Turkmenistan
The first issue of a new newspaper in Turkmenistan called Rysgal (Welfare) appeared last week, the State News Agency of Turkmenistan (TDH) reported.
While described as "the first private newspaper of Turkmenistan," according to the TDH report, the paper was founded on instructions from President Berdymukhamedov earlier this year to the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, a state-controlled organization.
The entire concept of "private" in Turkmenistan is a relative one, of course, given that the president and his loyal ministers control every aspect of life. Much of the economy remains in state hands, and there is little that the secret police don't know about.
President Berdymukhamedov praised the new publication in a speech at a cabinet meeting September 17, promising to support the entrepreneurs. Aleksandr Dadayev, chairman of the Union, expressed "profound, sincere gratitude" to the president for "providing comprehensive support to small and medium businesses." Turkmen businesses have been given "vast opportunities" to implement projects and have "actively contributed" to the president's large-scale social and economic programs for the "welfare and prosperity of the Turkmen people," he said.
In a welcoming statement published in the first issue of Rysgal, President Berdymukhamedov said that back in May at the Elder's Council meeting in Dashoguz, he had highlighted the need to further democratize society, and had urged the forum's participants from different sectors of Turkmen society to take the initiative in establishing political parties and publishing private independent newspapers and journals.
"The Union of Manufacturers and Entrepreneurs was the first to take up the call," reported TDH. But it had a lot of priming in advance, and a lot of help from above.
In 2008, President Berdymukhamedov created the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs as a way of displacing an already-existing organization by a similar name created by past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, chrono-tm.org, the news service of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights reported. The old organization's employees were ordered to vacate the premises of the building once given to them and make way for the new director, Aleksandr Dadayev.
Although the original union had registered in 1993 and joined the International Congress of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, and had managed to create a business school and resource center even under Niyazov, it found itself sidelined when the new leader had to dismantle his predecessor's power bases. Kakbay Sopoyev, director of the abolished organization, tried to appeal the president's decision with the prosecutor, who appeared at first to acknowledge he had a case, but then under pressure from the presidential administration, failed to take further action.
Dadayev is not just in the union and newspaper business, says chrono-tm.org. In 2007, President Berdymukhamedov signed a decree to provide a two-year $14 million loan for Dadayev's poultry plant. The president provided the loan interest free for the first two years, and then 5 percent annual interest for 10 years, and also gave Dadayev the privilege to convert manats to dollars to import equipment and feed.
The union newspaper is supposed to inform readers of the achievements of Turkmen business people as evidence of "the success of democratic reforms initiated by the President of Turkmenistan in Turkmen society," says TDH. But most small businesses starting out can't count on million-dollar loans from the president or any agency, and have a hard time just getting registered and operating without excessive red tape.
With such a heavy social and political role assigned to the paper even before the first issue hits the stands, it's difficult to conceive how much leeway it would have to function in a truly independent fashion. Clearly Rysgal is part of the president's plan to modernize the media, all the better to portray his perceived economic achievements. For years, the Turkmen leader has been scolding and goading the sluggish state-controlled media, trying to get it to be more hip and appealing, yet still faithfully carry out his orders. He has constantly changed editors of television and print media, keeping any media executive in a state of fear and glum expectation that he or she won't last long. Finally, someone has been found who can be compliant, but with a bold and fresh look.
The 8-page paper is published in the Turkmen and Russian languages and is intended for a wide readership, but it does not appear yet to have an online presence. Topics to be covered include advice to start-ups, analysis of the real estate market, international business partnerships, and "news you can use," with apparently some advertising.
"The new newspaper will provide information about the current state of the domestic and foreign markets, and stir up a lively and substantive discussion about an effective model for the national economy," says TDH.
But with the state controlling every aspect of the print and broadcast media, and blocking sites like Youtube and online social media communities like agentura.ru, it is hard to conceive of the paper as anything remotely approaching a real private, commercial operation that could sustain an authentic public dialogue. Rysgal will join the ranks of other business papers in the Eurasian region that are more readable than the official state fare, and occasionally have some useful news in them, but rarely challenge the state. The appearance of a nominally private outlet is the Turkmen leader's answer to pressure from foreign leaders to allow more pluralism in the media and more democracy in the political process.
The propagandistic dodge has already had some effect; many regional and international wire services have already reported this story unchallenged; the Turkish daily Hurriyet was typical of a number of world news sites that reported the appearance of Rysgal as a "private newspaper" without probing the relationship to the president. While the publication may be nominally registered as a commercial entity not formally attached to a state agency, it is clearly under the patronage of the president and its owner has obtained his privileges from his past business relationship with the head of state.
One faint positive sign is that at least the president has entrusted someone else other than himself to do some of the publishing in the country. But lest the new glossy tabloid distract too much from his own persona, the president has also just come out this month with yet another book, released with much fanfare in the state media (which had just exhausted itself last month reporting on a prize at the Moscow Book Fair for the president's past book, "Ahal Teke: Our Pride and Glory" on Turkmenistan's race horses).
The new book has the snappy title "State Regulation of Socio-Economic Development of Turkmenistan," and describes the establishment of a market economy in Turkmenistan and -- not surprisingly -- the achievements of the "Era of New Revival," as the Turkmen leader has dubbed his reign. The book has many appendices containing regulations and laws-- which in fact are all part of what stifles free enterprise in Turkmenistan.