NOTKOREA ORTH is not the only supposed success in Asia’s fight against covid-19. In the middle of the continent, on the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea, Turkmenistan has also apparently managed to go the past two years without a single recorded infection. Under President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (photo), its lucky citizens lived in an “era of power and happiness”. What’s more, their president entertains them as well, roaring in race cars, scoring targets on the range and catching whoppers on fishing expeditions. The economy is said to have grown by around 6% last year. The country’s 6 million people are thriving.
It is in any case the official image. The reality is quite different. There are many wage arrears. The black market value of the manat, the country’s currency, is one-seventh of the official rate. Even the usually optimistic president has worried about Turkmenistan’s increase in debt, although its precise magnitude is kept under wraps. The Asian Development Bank estimates GDP rose a modest 1.6% in 2020 as energy prices fell and China’s demand for natural gas fell. Gas represents 90% of Turkmenistan’s exports; China for 80% of its trade.
Exports have rebounded with the recent surge in demand for natural gas, but an inflexible contract with China has prevented Turkmenistan from taking full advantage of the surge in prices. The Taliban’s takeover of neighboring Afghanistan has made already blocked plans to build a pipeline to transport gas to new markets in South Asia even more unlikely. Campaigners say they want the pipeline to move forward, but few foreign donors are enthusiastic.
Although government propagandists do their best to portray the country as a land of plenty, Turkmenistans are all too aware of the real state of the economy. State television shows stores with overflowing shelves, but “in reality people go at 4-5 in the morning to line up at state food stores,” says Farid Tukhbatullin, who runs the store. ‘Turkmenistan Human Rights Initiative (TIHR), a Vienna-based advocacy group. Most citizens do not dare to complain “because they fear that the person next to them is an informant,” he says.
People who question the official line are harassed by security guards. Soltan Achilova, a 72-year-old journalist in the capital Ashgabat, who earlier this year publicly criticized the government for shortages of subsidized flour and cooking oil, has been threatened, attacks and arrests following his reports to Chronicles of Turkmenistan, TIHRthe news site of.
Last year, a young man named Nurgeldi Halykov was jailed after sharing a photo on Instagram with Turkmen.news, an independent outlet based in the Netherlands, which drew attention to a visiting delegation from the UNWorld Health Organization. Officials continued to deny that the covid was present even after the British Ambassador caught it last year. “Turkmenistan never fails,” notes Turkmen.news editor-in-chief Ruslan Myatiev with irony. Social networks and news sites are blocked. Police are monitoring cell phones for software that can circumvent such censorship. Turkmenistans can’t even access Zoom.
Such a brutal crackdown prevented Mr Berdymukhamedov, who is presenting himself Arkadag (“The Protector”), in power since 2007, nearly half of Turkmenistan’s existence as an independent state. Yet the lack of credible information also circulates wild rumors, such as when the allegedly ill-health president disappeared from public view in 2019. Many Turkmenistans believed he was dead.
Earlier this year, Mr Berdymukhamedov appointed his 40-year-old son, Serdar, deputy prime minister responsible only to the president. Two months later, the young Berdymukhamedov was appointed head of the country’s equestrian association. Local Akhal-Teke horses and Alabai dogs play an important role in worshiping the president’s personality. Photographs released this summer showing Serdar astride a thoroughbred, a gift from his father, once again fueled speculation among Turkmenistans over an upcoming succession. A dynasty seems to be looming.■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Do not heckle”