The manat, Turkmenistan’s currency, is looking a little livelier these days.
As Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan has reported, the black market exchange rate for the manat surged from 19.5 to the dollar to around 18.5 following remarks made last week by the former president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who is now the speaker of the Senate. The official (and fictitious) rate of the manat has for many years stood at 3.5 to the dollar.
Berdymukhamedov has not technically been in charge of the country since his son, Serdar, was elected president in March, but one would not know that from the way he behaves.
On November 23, Berdymukhamedov senior addressed the upper house of parliament on the topic of the state budget for 2023. Much in the mode of the government meetings the ex-leader used to run, the proceedings were dominated by a litany of buoyant predictions from Cabinet representatives mixed in with some awkward home truths.
Berdymukhamedov senior complained in that latter vein of how industry and the financial sector are struggling because of difficulties in making international cash transfers. These complications are created, he said, as though he was not responsible for the situation, by “artificial barriers to converting the national currency into freely floating foreign currencies.” There are no real private banks in Turkmenistan, so the jam is purely a state-manufactured one.
The upshot is that local companies find it very difficult to get their hands on imported supplies on time – or at all. This does not sit well with the regime’s professed ambition to see small and medium enterprises multiply and flourish.
Market rules is the mantra. Berdymukhamedov and son want to will this into reality by fiat rather than through honest-to-God liberalization, however.
One way that the government has been seeking to acculturate the Turkmen populace to market rules is not by giving them more choice, but by getting them used to paying their own way. So it was that in 2019, the policy of providing households with free electricity, household gas, water and even salt, which had been in place since 1993, was ditched.
But Berdymukhamedov senior is annoyed that utility dues are being counted and collected with insufficient strictness.
“This work has been started, but it has not been completed. In many places … devices for measuring the consumption of water, electricity, and natural gas have still not been installed,” he grumbled.
Turkmenistan’s state information machine operates along strictly Alice in Wonderland logic: The economy is very strong, and everybody has plenty of everything. Nevertheless, as Berdymukhamedov complained to the assembly of rubber-stampers, not enough is being set aside in the state budget for the purpose of enabling enterprises (which are private despite only being viable by virtue of generous subsidies) to ensure an abundance of food and jobs.
There is evident frustration that diktats are not enough. In January 2019, Berdymukhamedov senior, who was then still president, decreed that the Academy of Sciences was to be given three years to wean itself off the state’s teat. Researchers at the academy would have to find ways to fund themselves, it was decided. It does not seem to have gone well. Berdymukhamedov moaned to the Senate about not seeing any “discoveries with specific economic effects” coming out of the Academy of Sciences.
“Why is this happening? Is the level of knowledge among Turkmen scientists and young people lower than in any other country?” he pondered sadly, apparently not considering the possibility that this might be the partial result of draconian censorship and travel restrictions.
One entity that will be cut loose is the Institute of General and Practical Biology, which operates under the aegis of the Oguz Khan Engineering and Technology University. That institute’s professed achievements in improving cotton yields is the kind of thing the Senate speaker wants to see happening more often.
While Turkmen researchers might find it hard to get out of the country, nobody is restricting Berdymukhamedov senior’s ability to travel. Again performing a feat that might typically be thought the preserve of a president, the Senate speaker embarked on a visit to South Korea this week. He met in Seoul on November 29 with his not-counterpart President Yoon Suk-yeol and came away from his stay with an armful of signed documents “indicating a new level of development in Turkmen-Korean interstate relations.” Finer details are not yet forthcoming.
As for Berdymukhamedov the younger, his visit to the United Arab Emirates last week wrapped up with his attendance of a Turkmenistan-UAE business forum at The St. Regis Abu Dhabi. Turkmen businesspeople used the opportunity to tout carpets, fruit juices, and candy, among other things. One firm bit of business done at the forum was the signing of an agreement between state power company Turkmenergo and the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, a UAE government-owned entity also known as Masdar, to implement renewable energy projects in Turkmenistan with a total production capacity of 100 megawatts. That would be enough electricity to supply a single, small town.
More preparations are in motion for next month’s trilateral Azerbaijan-Turkey-Turkmenistan heads of state summit. Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov traveled to Ankara on November 27-28 at Turkey’s invitation, presumably to put final touches to the agenda. Ankara is also pressing Ashgabat to become a full-fledged member of the Organization of Turkic States. Cajoling notoriously club-averse Turkmenistan into entering the bloc would doubtless bolster Turkey’s sense of itself as a true regional leader.
Turkmenistan, meanwhile, is casting a role for itself as the regional philanthropist and bringer of peace.
On November 28, the Foreign Ministry revealed that the Turkmen government had donated humanitarian supplies of drugs and medical equipment to Afghanistan. The handover was performed during an event to mark the refurbishment of a small health clinic built by Turkmenistan in Afghanistan’s Faryab province in 2009. Turkmen-language textbooks for use by presumably ethnic Turkmen schoolchildren in grades one to four were handed over during the same ceremony.
Next month, Ashgabat is to play host to a United Nations-sponsored conference under the title "Dialogue is the Guarantee of Peace.” The Turkmen Foreign Ministry’s statement trailing the event does not mention Afghanistan by name, but that part is heavily implied. Ashgabat has been an eager champion of engagement with the Taliban regime and will make full use of the dialogue theme to advance that case.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.