With the economic crisis in Turkmenistan getting only deeper, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has created an anticorruption agency to combat what he thinks might be the main culprit.
Berdymukhamedov announced the formation of the agency during a government meeting on June 1. He said the goal of the body would be "to improve the detection, prevention, disclosure and investigation of corruption-related offenses.”
For all the talk of disclosure, there has been little of that going on. While it was not spelled out, the timing of this move looks like a transparent response to the deepening malaise gripping the country.
By all accounts, evidence of trouble in Turkmenistan is mounting with every passing day. Prices for anything other than the most common fruit and vegetables are constantly on the rise. Shortages for many other everyday items, such as chicken and sugar, are a regular occurrence. When sought-after goods do appear in the markets, shoppers are at the mercy of traders empowered to haggle costs upwards.
In recent times, even government workers in the capital have started to see their salaries being held back. The practice had already been in place for some time for energy sector laborers and civil servants in the provinces.
Even the cost of maintaining kindergartens and schools is being passed onto parents, who are required to sacrifice their own earnings, on an informal basis, for the cause.
The writer, Zhumageldy Sakenov, explained that while passing through the Lebap region he came down with a cold, but that when he visited several local pharmacies, he was unable to find any of the medication he needed.
“It would have been a long hunt had one local resident not advised me to buy drugs at the underground market. I agreed to the idea, and he took me to a pharmacy located in the depths of the bazaar in a place that looked more like a grocery store,” Sakenov wrote.
But upon emerging from the bazaar, Sakenov wrote, he was spotted by a woman that had served him in one of the legal pharmacies. She advised him to avoid taking the medicine he had bought, as much of what is sold in the markets is either expired or counterfeit, he wrote.
Berdymukhamedov has decided it is not mismanagement, the careless squandering of state funds on white elephant projects, excess reliance on its natural gas exports and failure to diversify the economy that is to blame for this grim picture, but graft.
At a session of the State Council for National Security on June 1, he reportedly laid out the parameters of the anti-corruption program, although state media have given precisely no details. One thing is clear: the public is not to be engaged in this effort, judging by the fact that state media strenuously omits any references to pressing social problems and that there are virtually no independent journalists to draw attention to matters requiring action. Those few brave individuals that report for foreign-based outlets like RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, do so at the risk of violent reprisals and arrest.
State bodies are indeed persisting in singing from the same unabashedly positive hymn sheet, announcing, for example, that the economy had expanded by 6.3 percent from January to May.
But who are the agents of this new anticorruption body to go after precisely?
Sudden protestations of concern about corruption need not be taken seriously on account of the profoundly nebulous nature of the Turkmen government, whose top officials are widely reported to be on the take on a colossal scale.
Reporting from Azatlyk indicates that a recent spate of corruption-related arrests was precipitated by the president’s anger at unwillingness among underlings and local businessmen to part with their earnings in the interests of supplementing the budget. A similar trend can be noticed across much of the former Soviet world, in such places as Russia and Kazakhstan, where there appears to be an emerging consensus that partial — or at least symbolic and apparent — constraints need to be placed on the scale of corruption.
The staffing of the anti-corruption agency is not promising. Berdymukhamedov has given the job of leading the body to Mammethan Chakyev, who had until now been chairman of the state customs service. Customs bodies in the region are notorious for their profound corruptness. On the other hand, this may be inspired staffing, since what official could possibly be better equipped to know where the bodies are buried? The general impression, however, is that the goal may not be so much to stop corruption as to better corral it in the interests of the ruling elite.
In another prong of the Turkmen government’s anti-crisis agenda, Berdymukhamedov last month created an intradepartmental commission to draw up proposals for economic reforms. The commission has been given until the middle of the year, just over one month, to come up with solutions — a startlingly tall order given the depth of the problems. Moreover, since a key brake to the economy lies in Turkmenistan’s isolationist policies, which are not likely to amended any time soon, no deep reforms should be expected.
Instead, more dismissals of top officials are probable — a return to the frantic cadre rotation strategy favored by the eccentric former president, Saparmurat Niyazov.
In another passage of the National Security Council meeting, Berdymukhamedov ticked off Interior Minister Isgender Mulikov for his failure to properly uphold fire safety, which falls within his responsibilities. The “severe warning” — one warning short of outright dismissal — comes on the heels of what appears to have been a serious blaze at a car maintenance warehouse in the capital, Ashgabat.
Elsewhere, the winter grains harvest is starting on June 7. If yields are anywhere short of expectations, which will be high this year in light of the aforementioned food price hikes, more heads will certainly roll in the regions.