Loyalist Ashgabat-based outlet Arzuw News this week uploaded an interview with UNICEF’s Turkmenistan representative Shaheen Nilofer that was anodyne but for the unwitting insights it offered into the deep-lying problems affecting the country.
As Nilofer explained, UNICEF has been involved in supporting government-financed flour-fortification efforts to combat anemia among adolescents and young people. And that is not all.
“As far as undernutrition is concerned, as neonatal mortality is concerned, it is quite high,” Nilofer said in the interview posted on YouTube – a platform that, ironically enough, almost nobody can access inside Turkmenistan.
All this may only scratch the surface. A glance at recent UNICEF publications on Turkmenistan are a stark reminder of the debilitating information vacuum in which international organizations are expected to operate. And with UNICEF's $1 million annual budget for Turkmenistan operations – a figure volunteered by Nilofer – scope for action even slightly independent of the government is evidently limited.
The interviewer, who did not appear actually to engage with the answers offered, ended his hour-long exchange with the kind of startlingly patronizing line of questions that are becoming something of an Arzuw News calling card. Nilofer was asked to tell viewers about her favorite color and her description of an ideal man. The patient UNICEF representative gamely fielded much of this fluff.
The state of healthcare overall in Turkmenistan has received unusually prominent exposure of late, courtesy of an episode in Netflix travel series Dark Tourist. The presenter of that show, David Farrier, has now also written up his account of attending last September’s Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games for the Guardian. Farrier’s piece dwelled on the claim that he was given a dose of ketamine, a powerful tranquilizer that has over the years also been adopted in some quarters as a last-resort recreational drug, when he was admitted to the hospital after cutting his hand on a hotel mirror.
But that Turkmens could be assured of such timely treatment. The low quality of the country's hospitals was analyzed in more sober fashion in an article published on September 3 by Netherlands-based Alternative News of Turkmenistan, or ANT. As this deep-dive notes, although dozens of flashy new hospitals have been opened over the years, the reality is that the sheer lack of properly qualified personnel means that many are forced all the same to try and seek treatment abroad for serious conditions like cancer. “The only support the state gives in such cases is in converting [Turkmen] manat into dollars at the official rate for the payment of treatment abroad,” the website noted. This is, on paper, a great concession, since the official rate is generous compared to the more realistic black market rate, but as ANT explains, qualifying for this arrangement entails enduring a never-ending bureaucratic ordeal.
For the healthy, it is just the same old troubles as usual. Chronicles of Turkmenistan – another exile-run news outlet – reported on September 7 that butter is disappearing from Ashgabat’s shelves, and that the price of what is available has been rising significantly. On the same day, Chronicles said the government is planning to hike monthly fees at some state kindergartens in Ashgabat from 80 to 150 manat, representing an increase from $23 to $43 at the official exchange rate. It comes less than a year after a previous price spike from 8 to 80 manat. Considering that average monthly salaries hover anywhere around the low hundreds, this is an eye-watering change.
At the other end of the age spectrum, RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, has reported that confusing rules about how people over age 70 should draw their pensions has led many of them not to get any money at all.
A Cabinet meeting on September 7 overseen as ever by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov produced the usual parade of glowing data. Hydrocarbons was the theme of the week with officials declaring that oil and gas production targets had been fulfilled by 100.8 percent, and that the export of natural gas exceeded official projections by 101.1 percent.
Some other diktats cast major doubts on those figures, however. Berdymukhamedov handed a "severe reprimand" to Dovletdurdy Hajiyev, head of the state oil company Turkmenneft, also known as Turkmennebit. The chairman of state gas firm Turkmengaz, Myrat Archayev, received a reprimand as well, as did Vice Prime Minister Myratgeldi Meredatov, who oversees the energy sector. If quotas are being exceeded, what are the reprimands for?
In what looks like a significant breakthrough in Turkmenistan’s ambitions to become a exporter of electricity in the region, a new gas-and-steam turbine plant was put into operation on September 8 at the Mary electric plant, in the southeast of the country. The mid- to long-term ambition is for Turkmenistan to diversify its energy exports, in both form and destination market. Pakistan is considered a promising buyer. Reuters cited Berdymukhamedov as saying annual exports would be increased by 3 billion kilowatt hours, almost twice as much as the current 3.3 billion kilowatt hours.
A Turkmen government source also told Reuters news agency that the upgrade to the Mary power station cost $1.2 billion and was completed by Turkey’s Calik Holding, a long-time feature on Turkmenistan major infrastructure scene. The turbines themselves, meanwhile, were provided by U.S. giant General Electric.
While this should be the news dominating the state media scene, a boon to the economy can hardly be expected to compete with Berdymukhamedov's palpable excitement over the Amul-Khazar car rally, which kicked off on September 10. Rally enthusiasts may be interested to learn that the route will run 1,571 kilometers, from Turkmenabad, just across the border from Bukhara, through Turkmenistan’s barren middle, and end up in the town of Khazar on the Caspian shore.
It was not clear at press time whether Turkmen television viewers could expect a repeat of Berdymukhamedov’s recent rally driving escapades, but if the past is any guide, more absorbing myth-making may be on the horizon.
Akhal-Teke is a Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.