The president of Turkmenistan has in a long-awaited move ordered an end to all state welfare benefits except to the most needy.
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said at a meeting with finance sector official on June 6 that the “system of benefits has at the current time become utterly ineffectual.”
This is but the latest aspect of the economic crisis seeping into every aspect of life in the deeply authoritarian state.
Legislation providing Turkmenistan’s citizens with free electricity, gas, salt and water was first passed in 1993 and was designed to expire after 10 years. In 2003, the law was extended to 2020. In October 2006, two months before former President Saparmurat Niyazov died, the provision was yet again extended, to 2030.
Berdymukhamedov instructed deputy prime minister Byashimmyrat Hodjamammedov to take charge of the move.
“I instruct you, B. Hodjamammedov, to prepare in the nearest future your proposals on cancelling all benefits — that is, benefits should not be given to all, but only to those that are truly in need of social assistance,” the president was cited as saying in a state news agency report.
Berdymukhamedov said a radical overhaul of the “budget system” is required if the state is to be certain it can guarantee its basic obligations.
This is “important for the effective formation of social policies,” he said.
Quite what overhauling the budget actually means, however, beyond trying to rake in more tax revenues from somewhere or other, is far from certain.
Piling yet more pressure on Hodjamammedov, the president later chided the deputy PM for his poor work in managing operations in the financial, economic and banking sectors. Hodjamammedov was issued with a “severe warning” — one warning short of dismissal — unless he turns things around. Indeed, quite how Hodjamammedov has made it this far is anybody's guess, since he was actually giving a "last warning" in November for his failure to implement economic reforms more quickly.
Predictably, Berdymukhamedov is unwilling to allow for any admission of the fact that he has contrived to steer his resource-rich country into a state of economic free-fall. Instead of admitting there is a crisis, officials continue to issue sunny bulletins, such as the one stating that Turkmenistan’s economy had grown by 6.3 percent from January to May.
On the multiple occasions on which he floated the idea of scrapping benefits, Berdymukhamedov has described the initiative as part of efforts to move the country toward a more market-based model.
“The state must manage only assets necessary to exercise its authority in ensuring the security and defensive capabilities of the country,” he said.
No other concessions are seemingly to be made to lay the ground for the emergence of a genuinely open and competitive economic system though. All branches of power ultimately operate at the mercy of the president. There is no free media to provide checks and balances or even to highlight pressing social and economic problems. Secrecy and corruption are bywords of Berdymukhamedov’s rule.
Responding to the news Luca Anceschi, a lecturer in Central Asian studies at the University of Glasgow, wrote on Twitter that the scrapping of the benefits marked a “true watershed in regime decline.”
“Expect even more repression from here on,” he tweeted.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.