Milking Turkmenistan’s People To Pay For The Games
Turkmenistan is hosting the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in September, but it is not an event Turkmenistan's people are likely to remember fondly.
With the government reportedly scrambling to cover the expense of hosting an international sporting event and really nowhere else to turn for funds, the authorities are said to be putting the squeeze on citizens.
In the latest development, correspondents from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, report rising prices for basic foods, particularly dairy products.
There is no shortage of food at the moment in Turkmenistan, as was true at the end of 2016.
But Azatlyk correspondents report that the increases are affecting virtually all stores -- state and private -- domestic products and imports, and owners -- local or foreign. The price of a 200-gram container of sour cream, for example, went from 5 manats (3.5 manat = $1 at official rate) to 6 manats, and cheese products rose from 7-8 manats to 9-10 manats for about 200 grams.
In the capital, Ashgabat, prices for some essential foods have risen by as much as 50 percent since the start of the year.
One Ashgabat merchant, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that an "order came from above" to raise prices on certain goods by up to 20 percent. The same merchant said that state officials now visit his shop to check his sales records and extract that 20 percent markup as the state's share. Officially, the source said, the money hands over to officials is labeled a "voluntary donation." The merchant said he was told the funds were to be used in connection with the games.
Many workers in Turkmenistan, including state employees, are already familiar with "voluntary donations." For months now, the state has been taking money out of their monthly paychecks, declaring it also to be a "voluntary donation." In some cases, according to Azatlyk correspondents, up to 50 percent of teachers' and medical workers' monthly wages were being withheld.
A Turkmen opposition website recently alleged that some 15 to 20 percent of the salaries of workers in the gas and oil sector will be taken by the state from April until September to pay for the games.
The estimated cost of constructing the facilities and other infrastructure for the games -- including a monorail -- is some $5.5 billion. That does not include the cost of services or remuneration for employees and staff working at the events (though they might end up being conscripted, the way things are going). Add to that the expense of hiring a yet-to-be-announced special entertainer to perform at the opening ceremonies.
And there is also security. Turkmenistan's security service is active all the time. But this international sports event will bring the largest influx of foreigners the country has ever seen, and the Turkmen government is highly suspicious of foreigners. One expects that every member of every law enforcement and security agency will be on duty during the games, most of them in Ashgabat. That should be an extra expense.
Let's put this in perspective. Turkmenistan's leading trade partner is China, and China's ambassador to Turkmenistan, Sun Weidong, just said in an interview in January that bilateral trade for the first 11 months of 2016 was $5.4 billion.
In 2010, when Turkmenistan was named as host for these 2017 Games, the country's economic future looked very promising. Turkmenistan had just been exporting more than 40 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas to Russia in 2008; and despite pricing and other disputes with Gazprom in 2010, Ashgabat had good reason to believe those exports, at those volumes, would resume eventually. Turkmenistan exported somewhere between 6 and 8 bcm to Iran annually. And the first of four planned gas pipelines to China had just been launched at the end of 2009.
The situation is very different in 2017. Russia and Iran, at least for the moment, are no longer buying Turkmenistan's gas. It looks like China will buy only half the amount of gas planned a few years ago. And the price of gas is far less than Turkmen authorities predicted not so long ago.
The people of Turkmenistan never played a role in the decision to host the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games; the government campaigned for it as a prestige project.
If the economic situation were more favorable, the games would probably have very little influence on the lives of Turkmenistan's people. As it turns out, it is impossible for Turkmenistan's people to ignore the upcoming sporting event; they're helping pay for it.
And it isn't over yet for the Turkmen public. The official website for the games says there are 600,000 tickets on sale for the events, and authorities will no doubt wish for all those seats to be filled.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.