Turkmenistan at times evokes shades of the hit HBO show Succession. A cantankerous, egomaniacal and (allegedly) ailing leader insists on holding sway, even as all around him await his departure from the scene.
That domineering figure is President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. The faintly inadequate, weak-willed aspirant successor character is performed by his son, Serdar, who this week marked a new milestone by presenting the state budget for 2022.
This development is mainly significant in that it signals Serdar is increasingly being permitted to run day-to-day affairs. Such as was revealed about the budget in state media indicates that a slowly-slowly, more-of-the-same approach will be the rule should Serdar ever get hold of the reins.
Benefit payments, pensions and state salaries are to be increased by 10 percent, as usual. It is never clear whether this is generous or not, given that official economic data on inflation and the like is compiled nebulously and is beyond useless. And the official exchange rate is a fiction anyway.
Berdymukhamedov senior seemed content at any rate, noting that the budget as presented would, among other things, allow for perpetuation of his import-substitution agenda and the development of a domestic electronics sector.
Turkmenistan is engaged in a two-track program in its purported design to trade more with the outside world. It wants to limit the need for imports by giving a leg-up to domestic companies through targeted loans, but it is meanwhile also negotiating World Trade Organization membership. The government on October 14 accordingly discussed the WTO accession agenda. A state commission is now putting final touches on an application to attend the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference, opening in Geneva in late November, as an active observer.
Berdymukhamedov has his sights trained on distant horizons. Speaking in remarks televised on October 14, Berdymukhamedov proposed during a video-link address to a United Nations Global Sustainable Transport Conference taking place in Beijing that the UN should sponsor the development of transport networks. The president has landlocked countries like his own in mind. (Although Turkmenistan has a Caspian shoreline, that body of water has no easy water-borne access to the outside world). Indeed, Ashgabat intends to hold an International Conference of Ministers of Landlocked Developing Countries in April 2022.
“I ask all interested countries and international institutions to consider their participation in the upcoming conference,” Berdymukhamedov said.
In the meantime, there are more pressing and immediate matters of trade to resolve. The COVID-19 crisis prompted Turkmenistan to shutter its borders with its neighbors, and those restrictions are being rolled back in fits and starts.
Javad Hedayati, the head of transit affairs at Iran’s Road Maintenance and Transportation Organization, said over the weekend that all four crossings with Turkmenistan have now been reopened, albeit with some remaining restrictions.
“We hope that the trade problems with this country will be resolved soon,” Hedayati told the Iranian Students News Agency.
The easing of restrictions may account in part for some relief in the bazaars. As Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported on October 14, a surge in the value of the Turkmen manat against the dollar on the black market has led to a related drop in prices for staple goods. The website reported on a marked fall in the price of imported vegetable oil and domestically produced eggs. But prices for meat and dairy products, as well as those for vegetables, remain at the same level, the website noted.
Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news carries more dismal news, conjuring images of late Soviet decline: Subsidized state stores in the Dashoguz province, the website reported on October 18, have begun selling only one loaf of bread per family. Shoppers must come bearing their own crudely fashioned booklets to keep tally. State stores in the province had not previously imposed the quota for bread and only applied rationing to sales of sugar, vegetable oil, flour and frozen chicken legs.
COVID-19 restrictions might be eased in some places, but it’s no easier to know what is happening with Turkmenistan’s unacknowledged coronavirus disaster than it has ever been since the government resolved to cover up the whole mess. RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, has cited its unnamed government sources as saying that more than 25,000 people may have died with the virus to date. The source said most of the deaths had occurred in the Lebap and Mary provinces, where the largest outbreaks took place.
The World Health Organization, which has liberally chided governments in the West for their management of coronavirus outbreaks but given free passes to select dictatorships, has been particularly forgiving of Turkmenistan. Hans Kluge, the organization’s Europe regional director, even traveled to Turkmenistan earlier this month, offering Berdymukhamedov a remarkable propaganda photo-op. The WHO has since confirmed to Eurasianet that state media misquoted Kluge when it claimed he had favorably compared Turkmenistan’s COVID-19 prevention strategy to those of its global peers. The Turkmen propaganda machine also fudged when it claimed that 70 percent of its population had been vaccinated, since that figure only alluded to how many people had received at least one shot, not both. The boast is entirely spurious anyway, since it is based on the assertions of the chronically mendacious Turkmen government.
In more echoes of Succession, a consortium of media outlets – the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Turkmen.news, and exiled opposition-run Gundogar.org – ran a detailed report on the wealth accumulated by a nephew of the president: one Hajymyrat Rejepov.
The stripling has allegedly been making millions off the sale of products manufactured by the state-owned Garabogaz chemical factory, built to the tune of $1.2 billion in loans. Sales for the plant’s products are reportedly exported via a Scottish-registered company, Caran Holdings, which was listed officially at one point as belonging to Rejepov. As the reporting consortium notes, Rejepov and his brother have profited handsomely from this transparently rum and self-serving arrangement, having to date acquired as many as 16 apartments in Dubai collectively worth around $5.5 million.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.