Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has repeatedly claimed Turkmenistan’s immunity from the global economic crisis, touting the financial health of the country. Despite the purported health of the country’s budget and financial institutions, reports from inside the isolated Central Asian country indicate growing economic difficulties among citizens and local businesses, including large state corporations, and a general deterioration of the health and educational sectors.
Prices of bread and flour have skyrocketed 200 to 300 percent, and citizens have been stripped of flour subsidies, acutely affecting the most vulnerable populations in the provinces. This might stem, in part, from the country’s harvest only reaching 1.2 million tons of wheat this year, 100,000 tons lower than last year’s 1.3 million tons, and falling short of the set target of 1.6 million. Turkmen State mass media, including Turkmenistan.ru, known to provide a distorted, though government-commanded perspective on life in the country, has broadcast how wheat is Turkmenistan’s new export product. Also, the price of meat increased by 6 – 14 USD, a significant increase for the county, where, according to unofficial reports, the average monthly salary is 200 USD. The authorities tried to stop meat vendors from hiking the prices, and in response, sellers began selling it on the black market. Prices for international flights operated by the Turkmen national airlines, “Turkmenhowayollary,” doubled, while domestic airfare increased by 12 percent. According to an employee of the “Turkmenhowayollary” airlines who spoke to the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), the reason behind the sharp increase is a shortage of funds: “There is no money to pay salaries to pilots and crew, there are no funds available for the maintenance of equipment including aircrafts.”
On July 21, Turkmenistan celebrated the Day of Health and Medical Industry with a contest for “Best Doctor of the Year” in which contestants had to demonstrate, their ability to engage in state propaganda and praise the “achievements” of the national healthcare system; the skill to diagnose a patient based on a written list of symptoms; and finally, their artistic talents as entertainers by performing in comic shows about the work of a doctor. However, there is little comedy in the actual state of affairs of Turkmenistan’s health care system. Under past dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, Berdymukhamedov, holding the posts of Minister of Health and then Vice-Premier in charge of the health sector, oversaw the shuttering of numerous provincial clinics.
The sector is grossly underfunded, with the Turkmen government spending approximately 106 USD per person on healthcare, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) latest release of World Healthcare Statistics. Russia spends about five times more at 525 USD, and the former Soviet Baltic Republics – seven-to-eight times more. Healthcare outcomes in Turkmenistan are among the lowest in the world, with an average life expectancy of 63 years in comparison with 68 in Russia, and 72-75 in Baltic countries. In the WHO’s listing, Turkmenistan only rates above countries such as Gambia, with a life expectancy of 60 years, Tanzania, 55, Somalia, 51; it is the lowest of all of the countries of the Former Soviet Union.
In 2010, Doctors without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) left Turkmenistan after 10 years of working in the country, because Turkmen authorities rejected most of the projects proposed by the organization and refused to cooperate. Upon their departure, MSF published a critical report called “Turkmenistan’s opaque health system,” noting that, “Turkmenistan’s outward show of health and prosperity to the international community is masking a dangerous public health situation, in which government officials actively deny the prevalence of infectious disease, medical data is systemically manipulated, and international standards and protocols are rarely applied in practice.” A recent outbreak of the measles epidemic among infants in Ashgabat and surrounding areas – not mentioned by any of Turkmenistan’s state media – illustrates this point. Rather, state media touts the construction of new high tech medical centers, like the recently built “Ene Miakhri” (Mother’s tenderness), as “the pride of Turkmenistan’s medicine” while in fact, they are reportedly poorly constructed buildings with no climate control or adequate sewage disposal.
Turkmenistan’s education sector is also a shambles, with schools lacking for teachers and textbooks, and rampant corruption in the system. As Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights reports, Turkmenistan’s youth – those who are fortunate enough to afford such a luxury -- prefer to study abroad, in Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, and Russia, despite active efforts by the Turkmen authorities to obstruct young people’s pursuing education elsewhere, by requiring and denying exit visas for students, stopping them from leaving the country at the airport, and by not recognizing foreign diplomas in the country.
Whereas the Turkmen state may not invest in the health or education of the population, it is telling where it puts its money. The Turkmen state movie association, Turkmenfilm, is preparing to launch three propagandistic films about the country’s youth, describing their “strivings, interests and opportunities,” as touted by the semi-official web-site Turkmenistan.ru. One of the films will show students at the Avaza Caspian Sea resort, a pet project of the president that receives much attention in the state press which recently trumpeted the addition of a luxury cottage complex equipped with jacuzzis, indoor and open air swimming pools, football, volleyball, and basketball fields, a state-of-the-art fitness center, medical treatment and massage rooms, beautician rooms, pool tables, a hair salon, and the rest. Again the media in the country presents a distorted image of life in the country, where most of the population is just struggling, and increasingly so, to put dinner on the table, get adequate health care, and obtain a proper education.
For breaking news see our blog Sifting the Karakum