MARCH 5 (The Conway Bulletin) — Fights over flour have been reported in Turkmenistan by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), exposing the sharp economic collapse in the region’s most reclusive country.
And just as these reports were emerging, Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was filmed smiling and waving at the launch of his latest book — ‘Arkadag’s teaching, the basis for health and enthusiasm’.
Mr Berdymukhamedov, who refers to himself as Arkadag (The Patron), has cut an increasingly eccentric and isolated figure over the last few years. Effectively given the Turkmen Presidency in 2006/7 after the death of Saparmurat Niyazov from a heart attack, the former dentist had promised to open up the country and to usher in a period of reform. Initially, he appeared to deliver, cutting gas deals with China that enriched Turkmenistan.
Since a 2014 collapse in energy prices and an economic decline that triggered a devaluation of the manat, though, Mr Berdymukhamedov has concentrated on his cult of personality, producing a series of bizarre promotional videos that have included leading a gym workout with his ministers and training Turkmen special forces in the desert.
He has also sacked dozens of ministers, seemingly on a whim, desperate to shift blame for the economic decline.
There is no data charting the decline but anecdotal evidence gives glimpses. Subsidies for gas, water and electricity have been scrapped, shops have reported shortages, visa card services have been dropped because of a lack of cash and queues for flour and bread have grown.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen service showed videos of people scrambling for flour and also reported on fights in several villages over supplies.
— This story was first published on March 9 2018 in issue 364 of the weekly Conway Bulletin newspaper