Beyond the gold and marble glitz of Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat, a separate world exists. In this Central Asian state’s desperately poor rural regions, home to an estimated 90 percent of its population, there are no hospitals, no libraries and, at best, sub-standard schools. But with a newly elected president, attention is now focusing on what changes, if any, could be in store for the Turkmen countryside.
Turkmenistan’s late President Saparmurat Niyazov had a straightforward social welfare policy for rural residents: Since village Turkmens do not read, he claimed, they do not need libraries. And since they can travel to hospitals in Ashgabat, they do not need their own medical clinics.
Since Niyazov’s death, 49-year-old President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has stunned some Western observers with a list of policy initiatives that seem to acknowledge defects in Niyazov’s 15-year rule as president. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. To date, though, no specific mention has been made of plans to bring reform to rural Turkmenistan.
A scheduled March 30 meeting of the country’s senior legislative chamber, the People’s Council, however, suggests that some attention may finally be brought to the matter. According to a report from the news site Turkmenistan.ru, the People’s Council will meet in Mary, a regional center in southeastern Turkmenistan, to discuss the "enhancement of industrial-economic relations in agriculture," the "improvement" of relevant legislation and the "further improvement of [the] welfare of people."
For now, the most visible of Berdymukhamedov’s reforms in the countryside has been the easing of domestic travel restrictions. The registration numbers of cars traveling from Ashgabat to Mary are noted by teenage conscripts supervised by traffic police, but this is a marked improvement from past practices, many say, when even travel between districts required an ID card and endless questioning at every checkpoint.
"The new president said the people deserved to be treated with a little more respect and to be allowed go about their business. It’s a start at least," said one Turkmen national, who later confessed he both was "astounded" and "delighted" by the change in procedure.
"Maybe now they’ll get a move on fixing the rest of the road," he added referring to the abrupt end of a re-surfacing project some 40 kilometers south of Ashgabat.
However, the easing of travel restrictions is unlikely to lead to widespread rural-urban migration as seen in other Central Asian states.
"There’s little evidence of migration within Turkmenistan," said Martha Brill-Olcott, a senior associate at the Washington, DC-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "We know very little about it. But reform of the schooling system and health care will be significant for the rural population. He [Berdymukhamedov] has to do something about agriculture reform. He might decide to loosen things up," she added.
Cotton is king outside of the Turkmen capital, but the environmental impact has proven devastating. Farmers routinely employ a toxic cocktail of chemical fertilizers to combat soil degradation and meet government cotton quotas. Salt from cotton-induced soil degradation rises alongside the Karakum canal, the country’s main irrigation artery, which carries water from the Amu-Darya River to Ashgabat.
Revitalization of the country’s agricultural system is critical, the World Bank has argued. In 2003, the latest year for which figures have been published, agriculture accounted for 26 percent of Turkmenistan’s economy and provided jobs for some 54 percent of its 5.8 million residents, according to the Bank.
International organizations such as the European Bank of Reconstruction Development (EBRD) have also persistently underscored the need to balance agricultural developments with environmental concerns.
For now, though, the Turkmen government has focused almost exclusively on the state-controlled cotton industry. President Berdymukhamedov has said that he would prioritize modernizing the sector by reducing the amount of raw cotton exported, while increasing the number of processing plants in the country. However, the dire environmental effects of intensive cotton farming have yet to be addressed by the new president.
Demand for cotton has also squeezed grain production. The Turkmen government was forced to admit last year that the country was heading for a bread shortage. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. However, a Western-educated professional based in Dashoguz province on the border with Kazakhstan said that such shortages are nothing new for Turkmenistan’s rural regions.
"Everything is in short supply in the villages," she said. "There’s no bread in the shops, no books in the schools, people wait months for the government wages. When they finally get them, there is nothing to buy."
The Turkmen government maintains that unemployment does not exist since the state provides work for every citizen. But locals estimate that unemployment in Ashgabat runs at 20 percent and is even higher in rural areas.
A former teacher said there just aren’t the jobs to go around. "You see people sweeping the streets and that constitutes employment in the city. In the countryside, people get drafted in to work during the cotton sowing and harvesting periods, but that’s seasonal employment," the teacher said. "The rest of the year there is nothing to do. If you want a government job, you must know the right people."
Nor can rural schools provide much preparation for the good jobs craved. President Berdymukhamedov has proposed overhauling the education system, a plan welcomed by international organizations, but specifics for the reforms are few. "The educational system is rotten. The children are bullied and abused," commented the Western-educated professional. "The children are afraid of their teachers. They can barely read or write when they do leave school."
Chances for aggressive reform of regional healthcare are no more encouraging. In 2005, Berdymukhamedov, then minister of health, himself implemented Niyzaov’s decree to shut down hospitals outside of Ashgabat.
Any progress is likely to be very slow in coming, cautioned Zeyno Baran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a public policy think tank in Washington, DC. "[Niyazov’s] legacy will continue because there is no other ideology in Turkmenistan," Baran said. "Reform will be introduced slowly to keep things moving without instability."
Eurasianet.org March 13, 2007