The contradictions that dog Turkmenistan

April 7th, 2008 - 2:20 pm ICT by admin  

(A Reporter’s Diary)
By Vishnu Makhijani
Ashgabat, April 7 (IANS) Prosperity without development and the inability to take off the shackles of the past - this just about sums up the contradictions that face the oil-rich Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan in the 17th year of its independence from the erstwhile Soviet Union. Ashgabat, at first glance, is truly impressive and a showpiece city - particularly at night - with its wide and brightly-lit boulevards, illuminated high rise apartments and office blocks in pristine white marble, and a host of memorials, parks and stadiums built to Olympic standards.

All this seems an illusion once one leaves the city limits after a two-day visit here with Indian Vice President Mohammed Hamid Ansari. It almost seems as if time has stood still for the rest of the populace. The houses are run down, the fields seem unkempt, and while there is no evidence of squalor, it’s quite apparent that the quality of life in the countryside is far removed from that in the capital.

There is one other crucial difference. In Ashgabat, you will be hard put to find overhead electrical wires - they’re just not there because the entire system runs underground. In the countryside, it’s visibly overground - and rather untidily at that.

This feeling is enhanced when one ventures to the city of Mary, the country’s third largest on the outskirts of which excavations have revealed a civilisation dating back to 2000 BC and which has now been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Landing at Mary airport after a 40-minute flight from Ashgabat, one cannot but help notice the rusting radars from the Soviet era and decrepit fighters scattered around the airfield. The drive from the airport to the ruins is a bone jarring experience that makes one wonder whether the roads of Ashgabat or the highway to the Gypchak mosque was for real.

The Gypchak mosque, 20 km from Ashqabat, was built by late president Saparmurat Niyazov in a complex that also houses the graves of his parents and siblings, killed in a devastating earthquake in 1948 that virtually flattened the capital and its surrounding areas.

The mosque is truly awesome with its intricately carved high dome and can accommodate 20,000 worshipers - in a land of five million, of which a million live in the capital.

The point being made is this: Turkmenistan is, no doubt, prosperous with oil and gas revenues estimated to be adding some $15-20 billion to the country’s foreign exchange reserves every year. But, as is said of Moscow, the bulk of the money pours into the black hole that the capital city is.

Thus, Ashgabat is visibly prosperous - with the reverse being true of the rest of the country.

Look at it another way: unemployment is running at a staggering 50 percent and even those who have jobs are rather poorly paid. Salaries begin at around $50 and average out at some $200-250, conversations with a number of people on the streets of Ashgabat revealed.

The obvious question that would arise is: Why, then, are the people of a supposedly independent country taking this lying down? The answer lies in the “welfare state” nature of things.

Essentials like water, gas and electricity are provided free. Healthcare and education is virtually free, and so is transportation in the capital and other cities.

As a guide on a tour bus put it: “For the price of a loaf of bread (40 cents), you can take 400 rides on commuter buses in the city.” He wasn’t joking because this was independently confirmed from multiple sources.

The flip side of this, if it could be termed so, is that crime is virtually unheard of in Ashgabat and in much of the country. But ask about corruption and everyone just clams up.

That’s because of the omnipresence of the state. Wherever one looks, huge portraits of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov glare down at you from the facades of public buildings, in parks, in market places and just about every other conceivable spot where large portraits can be mounted.

His “sayings” are etched on the porticos of public buildings and regularly find place in the state controlled print and television media that routinely print “report cards” on ministers and government officials.

For instance, the newspapers will report that a certain individual “has been appointed on probation for a period of two months and his work will be closely monitored during this period”.

Another announcement will say that a minister “has been dismissed for not performing well during his probation period and will never be offered a government job again”.

The Soviet Union might have collapsed in 1991 but many instruments of its state power continue to be exercised - with a vengeance.

The good and the bad, just a short visit to this country lays bare all the contradictions.

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