Turkmenistan takes New Year’s celebrations seriously.
Even the day before the calendars were flipped to January 1 was decreed a holiday. Then again, people were required to work on December 29, a Sunday, to make up for lost productivity.
Last year was branded with the slogan “Turkmenistan: Motherland of Prosperity.” But this holiday switcheroo exemplifies neatly the ways in which President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s regime trades in appearance over substance.
The scrapping of free handouts of water, gas and salt in January was sold to the population as a momentous stride toward embracing the tenets of the market economy. The real reason for eliminating this core element of the social contract, whereby quietism is bought through generous spending: Money is tight.
While the government issues regular glowing status updates on the health of the economy, the reality relayed by citizen journalists informing exile media is less upbeat. As Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news reported in July, the proliferation of lines at stores for staple groceries and even the shortage of cash in the ATMs had led to some mockingly adjusting the official slogan for 2019 to “Turkmenistan: Motherland of Famine.”
Berdymukhamedov is gambling the house on a narrow set of economic policies genuinely viewed by international experts as recipes for trouble. The key one of these is import substitution, a theme he has dwelled upon repeatedly since 2015. Customs fees slapped onto vegetables, fruit, juices and other edible goods are intended to provide a fillip to local manufacturers.
This accounts for the endless reports on state television about the opening of new food processing plants, farms, textile factories and all manner of other manufacturing facilities. Experience elsewhere suggests, however, that many of those enterprises will struggle should the state’s protections ever be eased, which will have to happen if Turkmenistan should ever attempt to integrate with the global economy.
The government does appear to acknowledge that conditions are far from ideal for the development of small and medium businesses, another theme favored by Berdymukhamedov. The president last month approved a decree enabling individuals to engage in commercial activities without having to form a company.
This marks a minute evolution from the emphasis placed until now on creating large, would-be national champions. In January, construction began on a $2.3 billion highway running 640 kilometers from the capital, Ashgabat, to the city of Turkmenabat, near Bukhara. As state media pointed out at the time, this was to be the first project of its type done entirely by a local company and without outside help.
As Turkmen.news revealed in an article in July, the companies that stand to make a killing from this hugely lucrative and overpriced undertaking appear to be ultimately owned by a brother-in-law of the president, Annanazar Rejepov. The same businessman owns other companies engaged in agriculture, transportation and retail – a fact that provides a compelling argument that Berdymukhamedov’s talk of market economics may not be wholly untainted by venal motivations.
Two episodes injected drama into Turkmenistan’s otherwise staid news landscape this past year.
One was the mysterious disappearance of the president, which lasted a month and sparked wild rumors that he had succumbed to a stroke or some other similarly debilitating affliction. This absence made the international headlines and even drew the mocking attention of U.S.-based comedians, like the presenter of Comedy Central’s Daily Show, Trevor Noah.
The authorities never acknowledged this extended hiatus. In fact, their clumsy attempts to persuade the public that the president was well served only to deepen suspicions.
Whatever the case, Berdymukhamedov appeared to cast off concerns of ill-health by emerging from his extend retreat with an unusual urge to embark on foreign visits.
In late October, he flew to Japan, whose Kawasaki Heavy Industries took a lead role in the building of a $1.7 billion gas-to-liquids plant that opened in June in Ovadan-Depe, just outside Ashgabat. Days after that, he crossed the Caspian to attend the 28th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in the capital of Azerbaijan. In early November, he made it to Italy. He closed that month with a working visit to Uzbekistan, a neighbor he has visited 10 times since becoming president. To cap the year, he attended an informal heads of state summit in St. Petersburg for member nations of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
The other eye-catching drama in Turkmenistan was the theatrical firing and subsequent jailing of Interior Minister Isgender Mulikov. Weeks before, it was businessman Charymukhammed Kulov who was displayed on television in a struggle session-style confession to camera in which he sobbed and admitted to engaging in corruption. Other businesspeople and officials got the same treatment.
Things like the highway contract put lie to the notion that Berdymukhamedov’s regime is especially concerned with nepotism and shady business, so it is evident something knottier was playing out here. An internal struggle for influence and power is more likely to have triggered this palace bloodletting.
Among the zanier public relations stunts arranged by the presidential administration this year came in June, when Berdymukhamedov oversaw (and took part in) military exercises out in the desert. Footage of the president shooting his pistol at targets while wobbling uneasily on a mountain bike drew much online mockery. These weekend soldier capers, however, are intended to underline a serious point. Namely, that Turkmenistan is more than capable of defending itself from any possible incursion by militants over in Afghanistan. Unrest is regular feature of life in areas across the border. RFE/RL’s Turkmen service cited border personnel as recently as December 27 to report that security measures along the border had been intensified. Another source claimed that a group of Russian officers had been operating in Turkmenistan's border region with Afghanistan for at least a year.
Even though Berdymukhamedov did not die in 2019, it is probable that he will do so at some stage. The thinking for now is that he may hand over the reins to his chronically cheerless son, Serdar. Berdymukhamedov Junior has received considerably more exposure since January, when he was moved from his previous job as deputy foreign minister to become the deputy governor of Ahal, the province surrounding Ashgabat. He was promoted to governor in June. Evening news bulletins regularly show Serdar opening factories, laying foundations to new construction projects, giving speeches or reporting to his father on developments in his province.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.