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Turkmen Leaders' Lavish Trips Don't Sit Well With Civilians Mired In Poverty 

Poverty-stricken Turkmenistan marked Harvest Day with extravagant gatherings, food fairs, and exhibitions.
Poverty-stricken Turkmenistan marked Harvest Day with extravagant gatherings, food fairs, and exhibitions.

MARY, Turkmenistan -- The streets were thoroughly cleaned, faded buildings abruptly painted, and farmland cleared of weeds as officials in Turkmenistan's Mary region gave a grand welcome to authoritarian ex-President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov this weekend.

Dark-colored cars were also ordered to be kept out of the sight for a few days and anyone who disobeyed saw their vehicles towed away by traffic police.

The mercurial Berdymukhammedov -- who ruled with an iron hand from 2007 until turning over the presidency to his son Serdar in March -- has a well-known penchant for white and is obsessed with cleanliness.

Berdymukhammedov, 65, traveled in a brand-new white car as he visited cotton farms and wheat plantations in Mary on November 12. The head of the upper house of parliament, he still carries huge political clout within the authoritarian state.

A similar cleaning drive -- involving thousands of people -- was under way in the western Balkan region on November 14, ahead of another important visit by “one of the Berdymukhammedovs” this week, local sources said.

While regional officials were eager to impress the country's leaders, many ordinary Turkmen were far less enthusiastic.

Some Mary residents privately told RFE/RL that extensive and costly preparations for such visits doesn’t sit will with people mired in poverty.

“It’s an unnecessary burden when we barely make ends meet,” one local man said. “Despite [the horrible economic conditions] we still can't get rid of the Berdymukhammedovs.”

He spoke on condition of anonymity, as the tightly controlled state doesn’t tolerate criticism of the authorities.

Dancers celebrate Harvest Day with a picture of Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhammedov in the background. (file photo)
Dancers celebrate Harvest Day with a picture of Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhammedov in the background. (file photo)

The Central Asian country is plagued by a financial crisis and food shortages despite sitting atop the world’s fourth-largest reserves of natural gas.

But officials still go to extreme lengths to create a facade of prosperity when the president -- or his father -- visits a region or attends a gathering.

They mobilize thousands to sweep the streets, repaint old buildings, rake out old shrubs, and plant new trees. Hundreds more -- from children to the elderly -- must wear traditional clothes to meet and greet the important guests in various ceremonies.

Some 2,500 people -- mostly public-sector workers -- have been taken from their day jobs in Balkan Province this week to prepare the port city of Turkmenbashi for the upcoming visit, sources said.

Small bazaars, fruit and vegetable stalls, and other businesses are often ordered to close during such trips for security reasons or even to help improve the view. Some Turkmen say “life stops” temporarily in their towns when the president pays a visit.

In Mary, even farmland was cleared of weeds and pathways between plantations cleaned of litter and swept ahead of Berdymukhammedov senior’s latest trip.

Sources close to the local government told RFE/RL that the authorities wanted to make sure the fields look flawless in case Berdymukhammedov sees them from above while in his helicopter.

Some of the old rooftops of residential buildings were painted green in anticipation of the visit.

Residents and rural cafe owners were ordered not to burn firewood until the former leader had left town. Most villagers depend on firewood to heat their homes, but security services were deployed to ensure people followed the orders.

Kept Under Wraps

The official sources said that up until the very last day Mary residents -- even most officials – had not been told which of the Berdymukhammedovs -- the son or the father -- was going to visit. The secretive state routinely keeps the dates and itineraries of its top leaders’ trips under wraps.

“At this point, it’s not clear who is coming and when they’re coming. All we know is that a Berdymukhammedov will be visiting to attend a ceremony to lay the first bricks of a factory,” a source said on the eve of the trip.

Former Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov visited Mary Province over the weekend.
Former Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov visited Mary Province over the weekend.

The next day, state television showed the elder Berdymukhammedov talking to farmers. He spoke to a smartly dressed farmer as several officials -- all dressed in strikingly similar dark coats and black baseball hats -- stood nearby taking notes on their matching green notepads.

State media said the aim of Berdymukhammedov’s trip was to meet the most successful farmers in the country and to deliver presents on behalf of his son, the president, for Harvest Day. The event was marked nationwide with gatherings, food fairs, exhibitions, and concerts.

The former president continues to pay official visits to Turkmen regions. In June he visited Lebap Province and received similar fanfare.

The trip to Mary was Berdymukhammedov's second visit to the southeastern province since early September. It came a day after he attended a summit of the Organization of Turkic States in Samarkand. Serdar Berdymukhammedov -- the president -- didn't attend the gathering even though almost all of the other countries there were represented by their presidents.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondents in the Mary and Balkan provinces.
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

    RFE/RL's Turkmen Service is the only international Turkmen-language media reporting independently on political, economic, cultural, and security issues from inside one of the the world’s most reclusive countries.

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