Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Ashgabat Again Demanding Young Men Shave Beards as Turkmenistan Slides toward Disaster

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 28 – The powers that be in Turkmenistan have long had an informal rule than no man under 40 could wear a beard because they believed that the spread of beards on the streets would lead the population to conclude that the Islamists were gaining in strength. Now, the authorities’ fears having grown, police are demanding younger men shave as well.

            So far, this trend appears to be limited to Ashgabat and further limited by corruption: police will allow young men to continue to wear a beard if they pay the authorities bribes. But those who don’t shave or don’t pay up often reportedly face beatings or other forms of mistreatment (centrasia.org/news.php?st=1548709980).

            But this action will do little to prevent conditions in Turkmenistan from deteriorating further. Indeed, it may have the effect of adding to popular anger at a regime that hasn’t been able to block price rises, food shortages, or incursions by Islamists and drug traffickers from Afghanistan.

            A specialist on Turkmenistan speaking on condition of anonymity tells the Regnum news agency that that country is now ripe for the expansion of terrorist groups not only because of social and economic conditions but also because the military and police are incapable of defending the country against such groups (iarex.ru/articles/63853.html).

            Over the past four years, the expert says, prices have risen and food shortages have occurred. To try to keep the population in line, the authorities have set prices in government stores, but that has created a situation like the one at the end of Soviet times – massive shortages in these stores and a rapidly growing gap between prices there and in the markets.

            As a result, Turkmens are angry; and in the absence of any other political organization in that most repressive of countries, they are turning to the only organized groups – radical Islamist organizations who come into the country from neighboring Afghanistan where such groups control almost all of the other side of the border.

            Because Ashgabat does not maintain or publish statistics, it is difficult to know just how bad things are for the population, but one indication of desperation, he continues, is that many of them are now turning to “extraordinary sources of income – from the sale of property to growing migration abroad.”

            If there are protests or disorders, the government is poorly equipped to respond. “The army is by general agreement in poor condition,” with bad training, a lack of cadres, and even an inability to feed troops on a regular basis. The militia is if anything in even worse shape to respond to problems.

            When things do deteriorate, the expert says, “the police are inclined ‘to bury their head in the sand,’ although at the end of 2018, the situation began to be corrected: the militia began jointly with the ministry for national security to track the situation and disperse possible protests. How all this will work if the situation becomes critical is unclear.”

            The threat from Afghanistan is real, but it is less ideological than criminal. Most of the Afghan groups view Turkmenistan as a path for the dispatch of drugs and engage in violence in order to ensure that they control that path.  They have killed numerous Turkmen border guards, and Ashgabat has not been able to respond “adequately.”

            The clearest indication that Ashgabat is finally beginning to focus on the dimensions of the problems it faces, the anonymous expert says, is that it has begun to try to impose order in the military and has appealed to Moscow for assistance. Joint exercises have been held, and the two countries now have an accord for mutual action in the event of a serious threat.

            The latter step is a major one because Turkmenistan up to now has officially declared itself a neutral state and does not want to have any outside government involved in any way on its territory. For it to make this concession to Russia suggests that the authorities in Ashgabat are very worried indeed.

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