The president's visit to Italy last week got off to an awkward start.
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's two-day trip came on the heels of the disappearance of Kasymberdy Garayev, a 24-year-old doctor who had only days before given an anonymous interview to RFE/RL about the difficulties of living in Turkmenistan as a gay man. The assumption is that he was unmasked and then possibly detained.
Italian LGBT rights organization Arcigay issued a petition urging Rome to speak out over Garayev's disappearance. The letter was published by leading Italian daily La Repubblica. Adding to the pressure Monica Cirinnà, a senator representing the Democratic Party, the junior member of the governing coalition, published a note on Facebook denouncing the disappearance of Garayev and calling for the government to press Berdymukhamedov on the matter.
Evidently feeling the heat, the Turkmen authorities buckled and allowed Garayev to emerge from wherever he was being kept. His reappearance came with some theater, however.
Garayev contacted RFE/RL on November 6 to insist that he had never in fact contacted them. He also claimed that the tearful farewell video message he had pre-recorded before his disappearance, which looked to all intents and purposes like an attempt to ensure his story would get out to the world in the event of him being detained, had actually been produced for another reason and that it was shared in error. The strangeness of these denials will understandably fuel suspicions that they were produced under duress.
Ashgabat is a master of weaving implausible fictions.
Berdymukhamedov: Man about town
As might have been expected, state news agency TDH on November 8 reported that cotton harvesters met production quotas, bringing in 1.05 million tons of the "white gold." The Ahal province, which is governed by Berdymukhamedov's son and presumed heir to the throne, 38-year-old Serdar Berdymukhamedov, was found to have fulfilled its quota faster than anywhere else. For that, Berdymukhamedov Jr was bestowed by his father with an award "for great love to independent Turkmenistan," AFP news agency reported.
The news about the cotton figures arrived just in time for the annual November 10 harvest holiday. This festivity is traditionally preceded by a mass labor campaign, a tradition in the vein of the forced-voluntary subbotniks beloved of the Soviets.
Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported that all residents of Ashgabat, including employees of private companies and doctors, were required to take part. Berdymukhamedov was shown doing his bit, planting a tree, in the evening news bulletin.
Berdymukhamedov did not attend the formal harvest celebration. The French ambassador to Ashgabat was on hand, however, and produced some interesting photos, including one of an elaborate fake cotton field.
The ambassador's image veered dangerously into possible inadvertent metaphor territory.
RFE/RL's Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, earlier this month reported that the cotton harvest was on track to fall well short of official targets. Azatlyk added in later reporting, citing its local sources, that around 5,000 agricultural workers had lost their jobs this year.
Netherlands-based website Turkmen.news claimed in a piece on November 8 that teachers are being pressured to volunteer funds to pay for the salaries of cotton pickers, but that a growing number is refusing to comply.
State media coverage of that presidential visit to Italy has proven surprisingly muted.
Berdymukhamedov was granted the requisite formalities by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and President Sergio Mattarella, but neither event got much attention.
Luca Vignati, the executive vice president for Central Asia at Italian oil major Eni, lauded Berdymukhamedov and the political stability he has overseen in Turkmenistan, if the account offered by TDH is reliable. Vignati, again according to TDH, went on to praise Turkmenistan as "one of the few countries where agreements are very clearly regulated and respected." That may come as a surprise to the various foreign investors sparring with Ashgabat through international arbitration fora.
A reasonably useful rundown of the outcome of the Turkmen-Italian business forum held in Milan on November 6 was provided by fervent, veteran Turkmenistan-booster Tariq Saeedi in his Ashgabat-based News Central Asia website. Anybody expecting major breakthroughs on the energy front was in for a disappointment - it is probable that any wrangling or negotiating on that front was done away from public eyes. Saeedi notes that representatives from the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, or UIET, a parastatal entity charged with transitioning Turkmenistan to something looking like a market economy, signed 20 commercial agreements. These focused on "the supply of equipment and processing lines for import-substituting industries," he reported.
Saeedi, a Pakistani national who has lived in Ashgabat for decades, let slip another interesting slice of insight when he noted that there is a "growing trend to award the main contract to the local companies in Turkmenistan and allow them to engage subcontractors as and when required." Any company lobbying for contracts in Turkmenistan is necessarily conjoined to the UIET, a nebulous entity understood to be linked in important ways to Berdymukhamedov's extended family. The model thus outlined suggests that the modus operandi is for well-connected local companies to take what amounts to a commission while passing on the actual work to third companies, often from outside the country.
One tantalizing figure to emerge from the Milan business forum revealed the share of foreign credit to Turkmenistan broken down by lender. A slide from a presentation tweeted by researcher Davide Cancarini showed South Korea, Japan and China holding a combined 89 percent of those loans. That would make Turkmenistan's dependence on east Asian cash more pronounced than in any other nation in the region.
Back in Turkmenistan, dressings-down continue to be doled out like sweets.
Yalim Berdiyev, the powerful head of the National Security Ministry, the successor agency to the KGB, was issued a severe reprimand from the president for "shortcomings in his work." Azatlyk suggested this might have been linked to the Garayev case. Justice Minister Begmyrat Muhammedov, who has been in his post since 2013, got his chiding on November 8.
Berdymukhamedov's fondness for Alabai dogs is reaching new heights. Fifteen meters (50 feet) to be exact. That is how high a planned monument to the hulking shepherd dog will soar.
Not all dogs (not to speak of cats) in Turkmenistan have the fortune of being Alabai sheepdogs. As Chronicles reported in October, city hall in Ashgabat has been issuing strict orders to round up and kill as many stray animals as possible. Since that activity too is regulated by quotas, there are excesses. Indiscriminate practices like leaving around poisoned meat means countless house pets have surely fallen victim to the culling campaign.