As the experience of their secretive handling of the COVID-19 crisis has shown, Turkmenistan’s authorities cannot be relied upon to provide an honest picture of the health of the population.
What little is known, therefore, of a deadly influenza epidemic coursing through the country must be gleaned from independent media.
On February 7, Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan cited unnamed sources as saying that 33 children died in a recent influenza epidemic that peaked in December and January. Most of the fatalities reportedly suffered from congenital heart and respiratory diseases. Children between the ages of five and seven appear to have been particularly badly hit.
The Chronicles report states that the spread of flu has now abated, but that at the peak of the crisis, there was a shortage of beds in the hospitals. At one stage, patients coming in from the regions were denied admission to city hospitals, the outlet said. The shortage of medicines became so bad that Turkmenistan is said to have imported supplies from Uzbekistan.
As many people were turned away from clinics, they resorted to self-treatment at home, thereby worsening the spread of the infection, Chronicles said.
Around November, health authorities in the capital, Ashgabat, were battling an outbreak of measles. A correspondent for RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, said at the time that most of the patients being seen in hospitals were of kindergarten age and that doctors were struggling to provide adequate care to all-comers.
This episode is a sobering reminder of the Turkmen regime’s confused priorities.
In other troubling healthcare news, also related by Azatlyk, it has come to light that female high school students in western Turkmenistan are being made to undergo “virginity tests.” One possible motivation for these intrusive, not to say illogical, gynecological exams offered by an Azatlyk source is that local authorities are alarmed over a recent surge in teenage pregnancies.
Girls found to have “failed” the test, which is administered without the consent of their parents, have their details passed on to the police and the National Security Ministry, Azatlyk alleged.
The authorities, meanwhile, are adamant they are investing lavishly on extending the reach of the healthcare system.
In November, two refurbished hospitals opened their doors in the western district of Balkanabat and, to the east, in the Mary region’s Bayramaly district. The two hospitals are furnished with 290 and 300 beds, respectively. In April 2022, President Serdar Berdymukhamedov inaugurated a 400-bed, seven-story hospital staffed by 1,200 workers in the city of Turkmenbashi.
Similar openings of medical facilities occur on a routine basis, although there is no credible way to verify what quality of care these places are providing.
The February 9 Cabinet meeting overseen by Berdymukhamedov marked the annual unveiling of bogus economic statistics for the year. The public was accordingly informed that gross domestic product increased by 6.3 percent in 2023. It was 6.2 percent the year before, according to state statisticians.
Of interest for watchers of the energy industry was the detail that Turkmenistan last year produced 80 billion cubic meters of natural gas and 8 million tons of oil. Half of that gas is being sent to China.
The too-long-don’t-read on the yearly reports is that everything went swimmingly. Even agriculture, a sector that saw 4.4 percent growth.
In fairness, this feels plausible. Turkmen tomatoes are apparently enjoying some success on foreign markets. In January, Shamyrat Herremov, the head of the agriculture and fisheries department of the parastatal Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs of Turkmenistan, reported that Turkmen entrepreneurs exporting fruit, vegetables and other agricultural goods had generated $135 million in revenues, a 10 percent rise on 2022. Fully $100 million of tomatoes were exported, he said. Destination markets for Turkmen produce include Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Of these, Russia is viewed as especially valuable. On February 7, Turkmen agriculture and health officials held a video conference call with representatives of Rosselkhoznadzor, Russia’s agriculture watchdog. Rosselkhoznadzor, a ban-happy agency if ever there was one, appear to have instigated the conversation to convey their concern over the excessive level of chemicals found in tomatoes arriving from Turkmenistan. The Russians said they would like to be able to conduct on-site inspections in Turkmenistan directly to see how pesticides are being used. The Turkmens gave assurances that they would adopt Russian practices in the safe use of pesticides and agrochemicals, but it looks like they demurred when it came to inviting foreign experts to root around their crops.
It is not known if Kyrgyzstan has such concerns. The Kyrgyz ambassador in Ashgabat, Azizbek Madmarov, revealed last week that fully 80 percent of tomatoes in his country arrive from Turkmenistan. That will have contributed heavily to the $100 million of trade done between the two countries in 2023. As Madmarov said, Turkmen investors look to be very curious about Kyrgyzstan judging by the “large number of business visa” applications his embassy received last year.
Evidently recognizing that improvements in agriculture are sorely needed, Berdymukhamedov at the Cabinet meeting ordered a radical overhaul of the Agriculture Ministry and several state agencies in the farming sector. He said this would be done to “increase productivity, develop livestock and poultry farming, create modern enterprises producing high-quality agricultural products, [and] introduce advanced technologies into production.”
And with that, Nazarmyrat Nazarmyradov was dismissed as Agriculture Minister, so that he could be “transferred to another job.” He was replaced by his deputy, Charyyar Chetiyev.
Nazarmyradov was one of several important ministers to lose their job. The heads of the Construction and Architecture Ministry, the Education Ministry, and the Health and Medical Industry were likewise replaced. Eight district-level chiefs were also given their marching orders – most of them for failing to do their jobs properly. Each firing hints opaquely at a story, but this being Turkmenistan, one may only speculate what that is.
Another headache may be looming in the shape of rising food prices.
Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news reported on February 12 that the cost of bread and flour at state stores, where prices are subsidized, have spiked. A loaf of bread that cost 0.50 manats earlier this month now costs 2 manats. A sack of flour that cost 50 manats until recently now retails at 190-210 manat. Azatlyk reports the same figures.
Although no official has announced a policy, this looks like the latest firm step being taken toward to rolling back subsidies in line with Berdymukhamedov’s professed ambition to see Turkmenistan’s economy transition to market rules.
If anybody complains, the repressive machine is already in place to shut their mouths.
Some truths eventually out, though.
Arkadag, the vanity soccer team given the same name as the honorific title of ex-President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (the father of the incumbent), won every single game this season to win the national title on its first attempt. This winning streak has now ended.
A tour of friendly matches in Europe began well on January 31, when Arkadag managed to defeat North Macedonian side Vardar 1-0. Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk were less forgiving. Despite putting out a second-fiddle line-up, they easily crushed the Turkmens 4-1 on February 8. Two days later, another Ukrainian team, SC Dnipro-1, beat Arkadag 1-0.
Correction: An original version of this article rendered a mistaken account of the reported influenza epidemic.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.