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Back Roads Beat

Tragicomic Tones in Turkmenistan

By Published: August 13, 2007
Censorship resulted in an interesting list of words muted or cut from broadcasts beyond the infamous "Seven Words You Can't Say On Television," including "Lenin," "Soviet" and "vodka." Various feminine and medical terms were axed from soap operas, as was kissing, and most jokes cut from comedy programs, making them short and confusing. On the other hand, those responsible for national security oversight of broadcasts were among the country's best-paid workers and didn't have any layoffs for years, unlike most industries.

One huge industry is cotton, with production ranking 10th in the world as the crop is planted on half the country's irrigated land. To ensure there's a sufficient labor pool, teachers are sent to the fields instead of getting time to prepare lessons since harvest coincides with the beginning of the school year. Some used to hire laborers to replace them, but too many were troublesome so the practice is now banned. In Turkmenistan's favor, a U.S. government report on human rights in 2006 notes there is "dramatically less evidence of child labor during the cotton harvest."

Education is touted as a top priority with 10 years' worth deemed mandatory, but that's less than the average for other former Soviet countries and it was reduced to nine during the last years of the Turkmenbashi regime before being restored. Loyalty to the president supersedes factual accuracy; science papers by teachers, or instance, are basically songs of praise to their leader and they were forced to get them published or face lay cuts or dismissal. Because there are no science journals, teachers get into fierce bidding wars with newspapers they bribe to publish them. Schools have few, if any, textbooks and those remaining are from the Soviet era, with no opportunity for instructors or parents to buy their own. The dominant classroom text is the Ruhnama, Turkmenbashi's revisionist religious/history self-tribute (more on this shortly).

Doctors are another occupation under duress, with the overall state of health care described by outside observers as deplorable even by impoverished Central Asian standards. Turkmenbashi ended free care in 2004 and replaced 15,000 nurses and other health care workers with soldiers whose medical training was unknown. He closed all hospitals outside Ashgabat in 2005, saying rural residents should be treated in the capital. Cutbacks also forced doctors to hire their own cleaning staff after the regular crews were dismissed, with the temps sometimes also administering shots and providing other care. AIDS and similar afflictions are officially nonexistent for all practical purposes. There's a significant drug problem, again unacknowledged officially, and such crimes aren't a focus of the many police crackdowns because arrests would result in undesirable statistics showing an increase in crime.

Nearly 90 percent of the population is Muslim, but Turkmens make and consume a lot of wine. Treatment of women is far from the most repressive on Earth, although they live under enough work and living restrictions, plus problems like non-enforcement of domestic violence laws, that boys are preferred by many families. Common girls' names are Besteir (enough) and Boyduk (fed up), according to an article by Paul Theroux in the May 28, 2007, issue of The New Yorker (only excerpts are available online legitimately, but (ahem, cough) his first-person article is required reading for anyone interested in the country.

Applying for a government job can be a real pain. In addition to a long list of personal data, prospects may have to provide obscurities such as the burial places of dead relatives going back five generations. Vacancies also don't always match areas of greatest need, with hockey and figure-skating coaches being of one of the biggest things sought by recruiters at a recent job fair.

It's possible to objectively put together a list of positives. Turkmenistan ranks fifth in GDP growth rate, according to the 2006 CIA World Factbook, and has the fifth-largest reserve of natural gas (hence the expats looking to profit). Their international political stance since independence is "permanent neutrality," refusing like Switzerland to take sides in conflicts. A decree in 2003 stated citizens will receive free electricity, natural gas, water and salt until 2030. Gas is maybe the world's cheapest at less than 10 cents a gallon, making taxis (any passing vehicle willing to pick you up—which usually happens in seconds) an incredible bargain at well under a dollar to go anywhere in Ashgabat.

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