Economist: Inside the mad despot’s realm; Turkmenistan

The Economist
May 27, 2006
U.S. Edition

Inside the mad despot’s realm; Turkmenistan

ashgabat and mary

A rare visit to one of the world’s most secretive and repressive
countries

THERE is not much to laugh about on state television in Turkmenistan.
But viewers may be forgiven for feeling a little quiet satisfaction
at the spectacle, late last month, of Gurbanbibi Atajanova, the
former chief state prosecutor otherwise known as the iron lady,
tearfully begging not to be sent to prison after being accused of
possessing 25 houses, 36 cars and 2,000 head of cattle. Ms Atajanova
led the purges that, in recent years, systematically removed anyone
who tried to challenge, or simply to rein in, President Saparmurat
Niyazov, the self-styled Turkmenbashi, or “father of Turkmen”.

Not, of course, mentioned by state television was the fact that, on
the very same day, Mr Niyazov was himself under attack. A
London-based human-rights organisation, Global Witness, was accusing
him of siphoning off most of the country’s estimated $2 billion a
year in gas revenues and concealing them in offshore accounts. One of
these contains $4 billion, alleges one well-informed insider.

Such topics cannot be discussed in Turkmenistan. Any criticism or
dissent is defined as treason and is punishable by long prison terms,
confinement to psychiatric hospital or internal banishment, mostly to
arid salt flats by the Caspian Sea. Private conversations everywhere
are monitored by eavesdropping informers, as well as bugs and
phone-taps. E-mails are monitored (there is only one
service-provider) and internet access rare: a trawl of the capital
reveals not one functioning public outlet. Surveillance, already
tight, has been ratcheted up after a failed coup attempt in 2002.

Yet there is much that needs to be discussed. Ashgabat, the capital,
is a surreal showpiece of grandiose, neo-Stalinist buildings of
gleaming white marble, with giant portraits and gold statues of the
Turkmenbashi everywhere – including one, arms aloft, that constantly
revolves through 360 degrees, so that it always faces the sun. Behind
the glitz lies a grim reality; rutted tracks leading from four-lane
highways to windowless, one-room homes, including converted railway
containers, surrounded by debris and animals. Some of these are
inhabited by those whose homes – and entire neighbourhoods – were razed
to make way for “renovation” and offered no compensation. In one, a
middle-aged woman struggles to bring up her nephew (her sister, a
heroin addict like many in Turkmenistan, is too ill). But Olga has
lost her job under new laws because she is of Armenian and Ukrainian
descent.

Such are the priorities of a regime that squanders money on prestige
projects of dubious benefit, including an ice-rink, a huge
half-finished artificial lake, vast mosques, gold-domed palaces and
soon a new zoo, complete with penguins, in a country where the summer
temperature tops 50°C. At the same time, public health and
education – the only worthwhile legacies of the Soviet Union, from
which Turkmenistan became independent in 1991 – have been all but
dismantled.

This year’s outlook is even grimmer than last’s. In January, 100,000
people had their pensions cancelled, those of another 250,000 were
severely cut back, and sickness and maternity benefits were ended.
Unusually, the decrees led to protests, including demonstrations in
the port town of Turkmenbashi, while a Niyazov statue in the city of
Mary (once known as Merv) had its arm sawn off and a bucket of human
faeces thrown over it.

Then, in April, Mr Niyazov announced a further “reform” to the
already crippled health service, adding new charges that will make
its few remaining services yet more inaccessible. Most hospitals
outside the capital have closed and the remainder offer only
rudimentary care, lacking staff, equipment and medicines, condemning
thousands to death from common, treatable illnesses such as
tuberculosis.

Every Monday at 8am, Turkmenistan’s schoolchildren line up to recite
the oath of allegiance to the president, part of a
youth-indoctrination programme that is progressively replacing the
conventional curriculum. Its core is the two-volume Ruhnama, “The
Book of the Spirit”, a homespun collection of thoughts on Turkmen
history and culture that pupils are required to spend hours studying.
Visits to bookstores reveal shelves lined with nothing but the
president’s works. Meanwhile, mandatory education has been reduced
from ten years to nine and most rural kindergartens have closed, as
have all libraries outside the capital. Russian-language teaching has
been largely phased out, music and ballet schools closed and almost
all teachers of ethnic-minority origins sacked under rigorously
enforced “Turkmenisation” policies that demand racial purity,
traceable back three generations, for all workers in state
institutions, including hospitals.

Higher education is severely run down. The annual intake is now under
3,000, a tenth of the pre-independence figure, courses have been cut
to two years and standards are so poor they are unacceptable abroad.
Worse, the president has ordered that no foreign degrees will
henceforth be recognised. Anyone with a qualification gained abroad
is either being sacked or refused a job. One economist says that all
but two of her high-school class of 30 have emigrated because they
see no future at home. “You have students returning with degrees from
the world’s best universities – MBAs from Stanford, for instance – who
can’t get jobs,” she says. “We are the last educated generation,”
sighs another professor.

In rural areas, the problems are different. Cotton is the main crop,
but the past three harvests have been catastrophic because of a
requirement to sell at state-set prices so low that farmers are left
with annual incomes of around $100. Unemployment is estimated at over
70%, exacerbated by public-sector layoffs, and by laws restricting
job-seekers to their home towns. Such is the pressure to obtain work
that bribes are standard. Even the scarf-swathed army of women
sweeping Ashgabat’s streets with twig brooms have to pay officials,
Turkmen say.

Despite widespread unhappiness with the regime, most Turkmen do not
see a way out. Rebellion looks impossible, given the level of
repression and fear; and state benefits (free gas and electricity and
highly subsidised fuel, since plentiful gas and oil are
Turkmenistan’s only blessing) take some of the edge off discontent.
Besides, people are brainwashed by a relentless propaganda machine
orchestrated by four state-television channels, two radio stations
and several newspapers propounding the idea of a “golden age”. Exiled
opposition groups have little influence, and pressure from the
outside, given Turkmenistan’s large mineral reserves, is shamefully
muted.

There is, though, much speculation about the 66-year-old
Turkmenbashi’s health. He has had heart surgery, and has a team of
eight top-notch German doctors constantly on call. This raises other
problems, most obviously the lack of a mechanism for an orderly
transfer of power, coupled with the lack of any democratic tradition
in a conservative, tribal society. Pessimistic Turkmen fear that a
lost generation, uneducated beyond the Ruhnama, may fall prey to
Islamic radicalism – and create a nasty failed state that could
destabilise an already volatile region. A fine mess for a father to
leave to his children.

GRAPHIC: Facing the sun, presiding over ruin

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