President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov used his considerable advantages -- total control over the media and all public organizations -- to announce his program in the essentially uncontested presidential elections on February 12. The Turkmen leader conceded the need to bring his desert nation of nearly 5 million people out of their nomadic past to become a modern industrialized nation.
In fact, Turkmenistan is already an industrialized country producing mainly gas and oil, although the total state budget and percentages of revenue from various industries are either hidden or exaggerated. Berdymukhamev essentially conceded that his country needs to diversify its hydrocarbons-intensive economy and add more agribusiness and manufacturing. Most adults of working age are employed outside the gas and oil industry in farming or municipal services, yet many are jobless. New clinics and schools sit half empty with unused new equipment because there aren't sufficiently trained people to run them.
After five years of allowing only one state-controlled party to exist, Berdymukhamedov called for the creation of new parties, and increased delegation of authority to civil society groups. The rubber-stamp parliament finally passed enabling legislation the next day -- but too late for this elections under registration rules. And the parties to be formed and civic associations that may become more active were ordered to “consolidate society” thus fulfilling government objectives, the president said. While the Turkmen dictator invoked the connection between human rights and progress, as if echoing earlier reformers such as Andrei Sakharov and Vaclav Havel, there seemed little scope for real independence.
The various state-approved industrialists and local government officials who registered their candidacy ostensibly in opposition to Berdymukhamedov, in fact seem to be vehicles for floating various prospects for the president’s own future plans. In his own campaign statement, regional Turkmengas boss Kakageldi Abdyllaev, called for building the Trans-Caspian Pipeline, saying he believed energy demand from Europe would increase, and indicating that global oil majors had made offers to Ashgabat to help new projects. He also called for pumping more gas to China, Iran and Russia, and moving ahead with the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline – all pledges the president himself has made.
Another candidate, Rejep Bazarov, deputy governor of Dashoguz velayat called for mechanizing agriculture, and abandoning the hand-picking of cotton.
Not surprisingly, one alternative candidate who tried to campaign outside the confines of pre-existing state approvals ran into roadblocks. Ana Abayeva, a school-teacher in Ashgabat, attempted to register her candidacy but her application was rejected by election officials, the Turkmen Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported. Abayeva was supported by an unregistered NGO called Civil Society Movement, and the lack of legal status disqualified her candidacy.
In calling for the modernization of his country, Berdymukhamedov seemed to understand the theory of the need for increased Internet access for scientific and technological innovation, speaking along the lines of the programs of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whom he had just visited in December. Yet in the Russian model, the “Silicon Valley” of Skolkovo is a top-down state managed enterprise, and by the time this idea got to Ashgabat, it was shorn even of the modest access to the web enjoyed by Russians. Internet penetration in Turkmenistan is under a half percent of the population, and the statistics for usage of Facebook and Vkontakte, which are surging elsewhere in the region, are running backwards in Turkmenistan.
The Turkmen leader said he hopes to train a new generation of communications and media technologists for a future information society, but the roadmap to the future was missing, especially in a context where mobile service, abruptly turned off for 2.4 million customers last year, has still not been fully restored.
Residents of Abadan, a city devastated by an explosion in a munitions depot last July, are frustrated over the lack of reconstruction and compensation, RFE/RL reported.
The government initially denied the extent of the blast but eventually announced they would rebuild the entire city -- a tacit acknowledgement of the extent of the damage. Officials admitted that at least 15 people were killed, but citizen journalists who reported on the aftermath of the tragedy said many more were believed to be killed or injured.
Some residents told an RFE/RL correspondent under condition of anonymity that six months after the explosion, only exteriors of buildings had been repaired and some buildings completely destroyed were replaced. People repaired their homes on their own, but have had trouble getting promised compensation.
Meanwhile, President Berdymukhamedov continues to trumpet the construction in Abadan of “a new modern city as a symbol of welfare of our people in the era of new Revival,” the government web site reported. In a tacit admission that the accident caused so much damage because the warehouse was located too close to apartment buildings, the president said new buildings would be located away from houses.
On December 21, a new white-marbled school with capacity for 600 children was opened in Abadan, the government website reported. Evidently this was a replacement for a school reportedly destroyed in the blast. The government also has grand plans for a hotel, health and agri-business buildings, and even a shopping mall and cultural center, but the dates for completion weren’t indicated.
An amateur video uploaded to YouTube last September showing a graduation celebration at a modest structure in Abadan may indicate life could have returned to normal for some people, but no local or foreign journalists have been able to report more broadly on what has happened in this suburb some 18 miles outside of Ashgabat
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