“Turkmenistan,” the top of a government’s website proclaims, “The Golden Age.”
But, as they say, all that glitters is not necessarily economic prosperity.
A recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission to Ashgabat found much to be concerned about. In dry, very diplomatic terms the IMF’s end-of-mission statement depicts an economy under stress, likely facing greater challenges in the years ahead, and unable — at this juncture — to communicate well with the country’s citizens.
“Turkmenistan continues to be impacted by an adverse external environment, similarly as the other Central Asian countries,” the statements begins.
Ashgabat, which reportedly taps into the world’s fourth largest reserve of natural gas, has not been able to sustainably capitalize on such resource wealth. For many years, Russia was Turkmenistan’s main customer — now it is China. A lack of diversity in trading partners means that whither the Chinese economy, and its slowing demand for Turkmen gas, so too goes the Turkmen economy. Projects like TAPI aim to diversity the country’s’ energy partners. But analysts call these projects “virtual” for a reason, tangible progress is nonexistent beyond grand groundbreaking ceremonies and fluffy statements in Pakistani press.
“The expectations for persistently lower oil and natural gas prices imply the need for additional policy adjustment,” the IMF statement continues.
“There is also scope for continued progress in increasing the efficiency of public spending, further improvements in banking regulation and supervision to prevent the build-up of risks, and additional steps to move to a more market-based real economy and financial sector.”
In less diplomatic terms: Ashgabat needs to spend the money it has better, deal with flawed banking systems (and perhaps corruption), stop making risky investments and allow private enterprises to grow.
Better communication to explain policies and their effects, both positive and negative, “would be helpful,” the statement says.
Turkmen citizens are as in the dark as the rest of us when it comes to figuring out the state’s policy direction.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service has carried multiple stories about unpaid workers and spiking prices for basic goods. Bruce Pannier recounted the more recent woes earlier this week:
A customer enters a store in Turkmenistan’s northern Dashoguz Province.
“I’d like to buy some sugar and some cooking oil, please.”
Store employee: “Certainly. Just put your name on this list and we’ll call you when it’s your turn.”
Customer: “And when might that be?”
Store employee: “Four, maybe five weeks.”
For some in Dashoguz Province, that is the new reality.
As Ronald Watson (a pseudonym) wrote in his introduction to an ongoing series of articles about the Turkmen economy published by Exeter’s Central Asia Network, “As is characteristic of this country, the government is most effectively fighting the rumours about the problems rather than the problems themselves.”
One way the Turkmen government has fought the rumors has been to put extraordinary pressure on journalists in the country. Of all of RFE/RL’s regional bureaus, the Turkmen service has perhaps been subjected to the most pressure. One of the service’s journalists — Saparmamed Nepeskuliev — disappeared into the state’s judicial system last year and has not been heard from since September 2015. He’d been given a 3-year sentence after a quick conviction on narcotics charges his supporters say are made-up.
Another journalist, Khudayberdy Allashov, was beaten and detained along with his mother on December 3 in Dashoguz Province. According to RFE/RL, Allashov had started contributing to the service in October “reporting local stories about food shortages, wage delays, salaries, and cotton-picking under the pen name Mekan Tashliyev.” The official reason for Allashov’s arrest is possession of chewing tobacco, which is technically illegal in the country.