Turkmen People Among Happiest in the World?
Forbes has reported that Turkmenistan occupies 18th place out of 155 in a ranking of the world's peoples by the degree of their well-being. The report is based on a Gallup World Poll that does not appear to be published yet on gallup.com.
The surprisingly high ranking for this impoverished Central Asian society under authoritarian rule could well be a function of how much access Gallup pollsters actually had to independent opinion in Turkmenistan -- and it may well have been extremely limited. The Turkmen government harshly discourages foreign criticism of its policies and practices and uses an extensive system of government minders and secret police to keep journalists and observers from wandering around freely and contacting people at will.
The Gallup poll isn't exactly a measure of "happiness" by external indicators anyway; it's a measure of well-being, self-defined, based on responses to a number of queries about economic status. Among the key issues surveyed is whether people believe they are better off today than they were yesterday. In that respect, Turkmens could easily say they are better off today than in the past, when they had less rights and less prosperity.
By contrast, neighboring Central Asia countries with somewhat greater tolerance for foreign pollsters and independent media report what seems like a more true level of their unhappiness with their countries' poverty, lack of opportunity, and human rights violations. Kazakhstan is at the 70th position; Uzbekistan is at 85; Kyrgyzstan is at 103, and Tajikistan is at 130. Russia and Ukraine rank 73rd.
President Berdymukhamedov lost no time in seizing the anomalous poll results as a propagandistic coup, welcoming the foreign press coverage at a cabinet meeting last week and saying that the 18th place in the survey was "an indicator of the high standard of living and quality of life" in Turkmenistan, the government website reported him as saying.
Of course it isn't, as those living standards rank very low on other surveys. For example, the United Nations Human Development Index(HDI), based on the extensive reporting of UN agencies working inside the country for many years, rated Turkmenistan 109 out of 182 countries of the world in 2007. According to the HDI, Turkmenistan has a GDP per capita annual income of $4,953 or $13.5 per day, which ranks it at 106 out of 182 countries. For life expectancy (64.6 years), Turkmenistan ranks at 126 out of 182, the UN reports.
In other surveys, Turkmenistan also ranks low. Freedom House rated Turkmenistan as "not free," with a score on political rights and civil liberties of "7," its lowest score. The CIA World Factbook says that 30 percent of the Turkmen population live below the poverty line, and as many as 60 percent are reportedly unemployed. These figures are estimates and provided from 2004, however, so they could be improved today.
Turkmenistan's controlled economy has shielded it to some extent from the global economic crisis, but its enormous gas revenues appear to have been spent more on impressive government palaces than on rural housing and social services. Turkmens may well be happier now than they were under past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in 2006. Even so, most independent observers of Turkmenistan report that poverty, unemployment and disease as well as drug addiction appear to be fairly widespread outside the capital, and many people, if they get the chance, migrate to neighboring countries in search of a better life.