–Turkmen subsidy cuts will irritate ordinary people but are unlikely to trigger massive anti-government protests, writes James Kilner
OCT. 1 — Successive former Soviet states have had to bite the bullet on reforming their various subsidy systems. This year, the most high-profile reforms have been to Russian and Kazakh pensions. The age of retirement has slowly been increased with the realisation that the state just can’t afford to pay for so many people in their 60s not to work.
Now news has broken that Turkmenistan has finally decided to do away with its previously excessively generous subsidies. The Turkmen government has been chipping away at subsidy levels for a few years but from January there won’t be any at all.
This is a big leap and there is genuine concern among analysts that Turkmen officials may face the ire of ordinary people. Some analysts have even talked up the possibility of anti-government protests.
Anti-government protests over subsidy cut-backs have happened before in the region. In 2015, protests across Yerevan forced the government to climb down over proposed electricity price rises.
Of course, Armenia is different from most other countries in the Central Asia and South Caucasus region. Street-level politics is an accepted part of the power spectrum in Armenia, as shown by a revolution in April and May that propelled Nikol Pashinyan into the premiership. Georgia too has a reputation for protests as a part of its political spectrum. The Rose revolution of 2003 turned Mikheil Saakashvili into a president. In Tbilisi, the full range of protests — pro-government, anti-government; pro-gay rights, anti-gay rights; pro-drug use, anti-drug use and so on — are relatively common. This year a march by workers of a mothballed regional sugar factory forced the government to reopen it.
In Central Asia, protests are treated with much less tolerance by the authorities and are a rare form of political expression. The main exception, of course, being Kyrgyzstan which has been through two revolutions since 2005.
News from Turkmenistan shows that its economy is doing poorly and points to a population having to deal with various deprivations. There is a lack of basic foodstuffs, money transfers out of the country are limited and people leaving the country are heavily monitored.
Subsidy cuts on basic utilities will hurt and there will be pockets of protests in Turkmenistan. There have been previously when cuts were announced and there will be now. But this is one of the most controlled police states in the world. Small-scale protests are one thing but what is more difficult to envisage are wide-scale protests that genuinely threaten the government.
>>This story was first published in issue 387 of The Conway Bulletin on Oct. 1 2018