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Coronavirus in Turkmenistan: Politics on the Verge of Crime

The high-ranking officials of Turkmenistan confirm that the Covid-19 pandemic is a hypothetical risk for the country, which is tackled successfully by the government. However, the socioeconomic situation in the republic proves otherwise.  

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From the very beginning of Covid-19 pandemic, the authorities of Turkmenistan took a position of silence and then denial of the virus presence in the country and of new cases. From the beginning of the pandemic, officials at various levels of political representation, often harshly, said, «There is no coronavirus in Turkmenistan due to the measures taken in advance!»

On November 13, 2020, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov at the session of the government said, «…As a result of preventive measures, the country has registered no coronavirus cases so far, which is a positive indicator and our great achievement.»

At the government session in early December dedicated to economic performance of 11 months of 2020, all members of the cabinet of ministers reported achievements in this sphere. They emphasised the enhancing GDP growth by 5.8 per cent, and the growth of the «retail sales compared to the same period of last year by 18 per cent.»

Moreover, the pandemic impact on the national economy, as well as the global economic crisis related to Covid-19, were never mentioned at the government session. Nothing was said about the decline of trans-boundary trade and reduction of foreign economic activity and the impact of these factors on the national economy in general. Neither the government actions nor programmes related to the pandemic and its prevention were mentioned.

«Excess mortality»

In the meantime, information about many new cases having symptoms similar to Covid-19 detected in various regions of the country was received since March 2020. The authorities gave strict instructions to all hospitals from the very beginning – never diagnose «coronavirus infection» replacing it with the diagnosis «pneumonia caused by flu», cold, and relate all lethal cases to «cardiac failure», «acute hepatitis»,

«cerebral haemorrhage», in other words, the diseases that could lead to fulminant disease and sudden death.

At the same time, the authorities banned all funeral ceremonies, including ablutionary rites and funeral feasts. Burial ceremony was held under the control of police officers, and the bodies were buried in sealed polyethylene sheeting.

When ACCA-media analysed satellite images, it detected a lot of new graves in the cemeteries of Turkmenistan, and the security agencies demanded that «the graves should be flat and unnoticed from above.»

An official of one of the health ministry department said to CABAR.asia anonymously that the authorities were absolutely unprepared to such situation and its fast development:

The infectious diseases hospital in the northern suburb of Ashgabat was filled immediately. Then, general hospitals were turned into infectious diseases hospitals. When they were crowded, the authorities provided once inhabited area – a campus of one of foreign construction companies that left Turkmenistan because of the dispute with the government – to serve as a hospital.

In the provinces, the situation was very critical. Hospitals were filled in the very first days, people were not admitted and returned to homes. It was a bit of luck to provide them with basic medications, but they ran out soon.

According to the same source, «excess mortality» compared to the same months of previous years was about 30 per cent, and he relates this fact directly to the mass Covid-19 rate.

«It’s impossible to determine absolute figures of new cases and lethal cases. The authorities banned to diagnose «coronavirus». But almost every month, our [health] ministry’s statistics records the rise by 25-35 per cent [of deaths in certain months] compared to average monthly indicators of previous years,» he said.  

Lockdown under a ban

The reluctance of the authorities to admit the presence of Covid-19 in the country was seen not only in public denial, but in a ban on wearing face masks in public places, for which people were fined «to avoid the spread of panic.» Moreover, all spring, up to the end of June, Turkmenistan was holding mass events with forced involvement of military conscripts, pupils and students, employees of state institutions.

One of the UN mission officers in Turkmenistan, Geldy Komekov (not his real name), said bitterly that everyone understood that lockdown measures in Turkmenistan such as social distancing on transport, in educational institutions, shopping malls, as well as obligatory wearing of face masks, were delayed.

«We have repeatedly asked the government officials to take these measures immediately, but they let us know that these measures were delayed and would be delayed until «special notice» to be given «from above»», Komekov said.

One of local observers, who knows the domestic political ‘environment’ of the Turkmen government first-hand, said categorically that «all motives for the denial [of the coronavirus presence] were related exclusively to the ego of the president.» Before coming to the position of the head of state, Berdymukhamedov was the health minister and supervised the state programme «Saglyk» («Health») designed to reform the whole healthcare system, which turned out to be unprepared for such hardships.

The prevailing personality cult does not mean a mistake on his part or mistakes in the system that was built by him. Thus, this problem transformed from a healthcare problem into a political problem. The authorities force themselves into a corner. The individual political denial of the pandemic in the country has led to the paralysis of the will among medical officials, and to the paralysis of the whole healthcare system – how to fight what doesn’t exist in the country, what is banned «from above» in the country.

«As if COVID-19 was circulating»

The situation was aggravated by the fact that in 2020 President Berdymukhamedov reached the «age of the Prophet». He turned 63 on June 29. Before this date, it was strictly forbidden to speak about the epidemic in Turkmenistan and the pandemic in the world – officials not only concealed the infection and banned everyone from speaking about it, but also restrained any preventive measures that could reduce new cases, decrease infection rate, thus decreasing the occupancy of hospitals and reducing the death rate.

For the same reason, the authorities had sabotaged the visit of the WHO mission to Turkmenistan before the celebration of the president’s birthday. The visit of the mission was agreed back in April, but the authorities postponed it all the time referring to «logistics issues».

Once the president’s birthday was celebrated and the final government session for the six months of 2020 was held, the president once again congratulated all with successes and good economic performance, sent the government to leave, and took a leave.

The next day the country introduced the «mask regime» – the authorities started fining for not wearing masks, mask wearing became mandatory. Other lockdown measures were taken – all bazaars, shopping malls, stores, but supermarkets and essential goods stores were closed. Entry and exit body temperature screening measures were taken in residential areas. The WHO’s mission visited the country on a business jet of the Turkmenistan airlines and  «logistics problems» that continued for two and a half months disappeared.

The visit of the WHO mission so much expected in the Turkmen society took place on July 10 in a confidential mode and was not covered by the national media, except for factual findings and results of the visit. Understanding the ambiguity of the situation, when the authorities, on the one hand, categorically denied coronavirus cases and the real risk of its total spread, on the other hand, the WHO mission recommended to the authorities of Turkmenistan to act  «as if Covid-19 was circulating.»

The authorities again denied the second visit of the WHO mission, which had been agreed in advance. On December 12, Turkmenistan is going to celebrate the status of neutrality that is, according to the authorities, one of the keystones of the national identity and sovereignty of Turkmenistan. According to the authorities, the risks of Covid-19 detection by the WHO mission that was planning to collect samples for independent examination were excessive on the threshold of this event.

Photo: Reuters

In the meantime, the authorities suggested the idea that coronavirus could spread through dust from the ecological disaster zone in Sub-Aral area to the Turkmen society and international community in order to justify lockdown measures, especially the strict face mask regime. Moreover, the authorities did not produce any scientifically justified data or opinions of prominent scientists. This version justifies all lockdown measures and substantiates public health.

Long queues and foreign exchange deficit

Inconsistent actions by the authorities crippled the economy. Closure of borders, both at the initiative of neighbouring states and by decision of the Turkmen authorities, hit small and medium-sized businesses and a lot of private entrepreneurs, or, simply said, shuttle traders, who earned from transboundary sales. Many entrepreneurs turned bankrupt.

Although the authorities supplied enough food to the people delivered by state-run or parastate monopolists who had various preferences, the basic consumer goods prices, especially food prices, rose up uncontrollably. One of the indicators of the situation was the rapid growth of queues for food subsidised by the state – cheap bread, flour, vegetable oil, cheap meat, and imported chicken legs.

Photo: hronikatm.com

At some places, queues for food were night-long, even when stores were closed. People continue to stand in queues and register the people in them. The authorities disperse the queues and get them move closer to the back entrance so that people are not visible both in the store and around the main entrance.

A seller of garments at the Optovy bazaar of Ashgabat said,

We used to go to Turkey and China to select the goods and paid there. We have developed our links and mechanisms for years. Now it all has gone down the drain. Even reliable partners abroad cannot send the goods to us as we cannot pay for it.

The banking system of Turkmenistan is also paralysed, the country has a shortage of foreign currency, the official conversion of manat to dollars is banned in the country, and it’s impossible to transfer money via banks. Even Western Union accepts only 100-dollar transfers per month. What kind of business can we have here?

The number of the poor and beggars in the streets of Ashgabat has increased, people scavenge the rubbish, which was never seen before. The crime rate, generally street robberies and home burglaries, has increased significantly.

According to the precinct police officer of one of the most dense district  «Parakhat 4», earlier the peak of crime rate was right after the amnesty, gradually diminishing, now such cases is a common thing.

«In fact, I have to put those who were recently amnestied under home arrest, and inspect them two-three times a day. We detain former habitual offenders and long-term drug addicts who were released from prison for a day to a police department or a police station to stop them from stealing. They have no jobs to earn a living, what else can they do? We give them food in the police station because the state pays for food for the detainees,» he said.

Meanwhile, the government shows no reaction to the aggravating economic situation. The economy of Turkmenistan had faced hard times before the pandemic – the country has seen the decline and recession for four years due to the sharp drop of energy resource prices, mainly the gas. The oil and gas sales amount to about 80 per cent of foreign currency supply to the country and its volumes gradually decrease.

For this reason, foreign exchange cash and its free convertibility for the people is forbidden. For legal entities who are involved in foreign economic activity, the maximum 10 per cent of the claimed amount may be converted on a first-come first-served basis.

There are plans, but they are not

The government has approved two plans to fight the consequences of coronavirus infection, but these plans were never promulgated.  The society knows nothing about their contents, and the authorities give no comments concerning their implementation.

According to a high-ranking official of a tax office of Ashgabat, the refusal to admit the epidemic in the country allows the authorities to ignore the worsening economic position of the people – without the need to introduce the system of support to low income population, or to provide economic support to small and medium-sized businesses.

Despite the sharp decline of the turnover, sales, the authorities failed to provide tax reliefs to this category of business, grant subsidies or freeze other payments, as other countries do.

Many people have to pay rental fees for sales areas and warehouses even during the lockdown; they have no spare cash, no sales; they cannot throw their goods off, so they have to pay, run into debts, go bankrupt. Small and medium-sized businesses in the country have already died or are about to die. Tax proceeds have declined by 60-70 per cent compared to last year. It will take years to recover.

The ex-official of the ministry of finance and economy of Turkmenistan said that the agency developed measures to support people and businesses. However, their measures were rejected and the department that was in charge was eliminated.

«It’s all about politics – the authorities deliberately do not want to admit there is epidemic in the country and the need to introduce emergency measures of economic and financial support. If a problem is not admitted, there’s no need to respond to it,» he said.

Director of one of large warehouse bases of the state-run corporation ‘Turkmenbakaleya’ told about another aspect of the situation,

The president ordered to increase wages by 10 per cent after the new year. But the corporation did not allocate any extra [wages] fund. The superior officials demand to increase wages at the expense of staff reduction. However, our base does not have enough staff, we can hardly run our warehouses with the staff we have. Now we have only skilled workers who maintain refrigerating equipment, keep records, provide logistical support, perform loading and other operations.

On top of that, I need to pay sick certificates to sick workers, including coronavirus cases. It’s not only the whole process flow, but the whole supply of the city [of Ashgabat] with essential goods that is threatened.

The same situation of the «increase of wages» is observed in the medical and educational areas. Managers have to reduce the staff to formally increase wages to all those who remain and to increase the load on the latter. The redundant workers join the army of unemployed because it is impossible to find a job amid this crisis neither in state institutions, nor in the dying businesses.

The situation in rural areas is even more tragic for the people and small businesses. Because of the delays in delivery caused by the lockdown measures, deliveries of goods to rural areas decreased many times. Many private stores simply closed, the functioning ones have a very limited range of goods. Moreover, amid massive unemployment, few citizens can afford buying goods in private stores at commercial prices.

Private hot break bakeries have suffered as well, while state-run ones fail to meet the demand. In rural areas, they still bake bread by themselves, but the sales of flour are strictly limited. It allows to allocate flour fairly.

Observations of the Turkmen government’s response to the challenges and risks of Covid-19 pandemic show that the authorities preferred to hide the challenges and threats, as usual, instead of taking specific measures and evaluating their severity and real consequences. This creates additional threats not only for the Turkmen society, but also for close neighbours, and for the whole world amid the pandemic, which makes Turkmenistan an unpredictable partner.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driing Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.

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