Turkmenistan: President Concedes Need to Industrialize
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has used his considerable "administrative resources" -- i.e. his total control over state television -- to announce his program in the essentially uncontested presidential elections on February 12.
The Turkmen leader nevertheless took the faux-humble approach, saying that his statement was important "for me, with the heavy but noble burden to serve my people" and for Turkmens themselves "who have the opportunity to oversee all the facts of my promises today."
Turkmens actually don't have that opportunity, without free press, but it's interesting that the notion of public oversight has become urgent enough at least to simulate.
But there's some obvious questions lingering under all the president's invocations of the need to obtain the latest advanced technologies.
For one, what has Berdymukhamedov been doing for the last five years, if his country is still "primarily agrarian"? To be sure, he's proudly mentioned all the new factories built on his watch, but it's not clear how well they're producing or what percentage of state revenue they bring, given that statistics are either hidden or exaggerated.
More to the point, it's the gas and oil industry, not cotton or wheat that already make up the lion's share of Turkmenistan's GDP (a lot of which goes into the president's own account) -- making the president's emphasis on moving from nomadic pastoralism to farming a bit strange.
Turkmenistan is already an industrial power -- if you look at its hydrocarbons and related industries -- and already supplies China, Russia and Iran with billions of cubic meters of gas, and has ambitions for even more customers. Yet while the president doesn't admit it in his campaign speech, Turkmenistan's Soviet-era pipeline and drilling infrastructure is aging, it has trouble when taking on its own construction projects in getting them finished and then finally asks for help (the East-West pipeline). Clearly, a lot more investment is needed to extract and deliver Turkmenistan's vast deposits.
As Berdymukhamedov said, "we plan to ensure deep processing of hydrocarbons using the most modern technologies and produce diverse high-quality products whether gasoline, polypropylene, liquefied gas, or petroleum products widely in demand throughout the world." These are already areas of joint ventures with Chinese, Malaysian, Italian and other companies.
The incumbent is savvy enough to know that he should mention the need to raise living standards along with plans for oil and gas development -- and keep social benefits strong. Yet it's not at all clear that Berdymukhamedov is ready to remove the "resource curse" from his country's development and diversify not only its energy routes and customers, but its industries.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.