Giving me a lift to the hotel, a young guy working as a taxi-driver in Ashgabat, speaking fluent Russian and unsuspicious that he was talking to the journalist, opened his heart to me:
"Sometimes, we hear that citizens of Ashgabat live poor life and have small wages. A foreign radio station reports that we almost live in poverty. Look at the street and see how many people are trying to take a taxi! It is now, at labor hours, and after 6 p.m. people catch taxis literary at every step! And it is like this despite that new buses run elsewhere in the city."
"Taxis are cheap, therefore people take them", I kept up the conversation.
"Yeah, compared to other countries, the fare is almost free. They charge 10,000 manats from one end of the city to the other. It is approximately 40 US cents according to the market exchange rate. However, on the other hand, one can buy four choreks (round flat bread) in the bazaar for this amount of money, or three kilograms of tomatoes, or a kilogram of grapes. It wouldn't be out of place for the family, would it? Generally speaking, if a man barely made both ends meet, he would have economized on taxis. One can have 200 drives in the bus for the same money".
In the evening I recalled this conversation with the taxi-driver in the hotel when I watched the broadcast of the meeting at which Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov called down the head of Turkmenneft State Concern for overstating the petroleum output and other cases of abuse of office. Later, the local colleagues translated the fragments of the Turkmen leader's speech to me.
"Dear countrymen, you must know for what transgressions we release Saparmamed Valiev from the office", the President said addressing the audience. "He was stuck in nepotism. To receive the title of the Hero of Turkmenistan he overstated 452 thousand tons of oil in the fraudulent manner. With the monthly salary of 14 million Manats, since 2002 he has been paid a monthly wage of US $ 1,500 in one of the foreign companies. He also placed his kin for the jobs in this company. It goes without saying that he provided unreasonable preferences to the company..."
Having stressed these facts were only the small part of committed disgraceful acts, the head of state bitterly questioned:
"What were you short of, Saparmamed? Were you dying from hunger? How could you have no shame, lose your face? What you have done is equal to betraying the native land. You have placed all your kin into the foreign company, made payments in dollars, and this company worked upon your order. You gave the best oil bearing fields to this company. Why did you do it? Don't you have the motherland, or doesn't your country need petroleum? You've run into debts, giving oil to these companies. You owe the state 100 thousand tons of oil. According to the law, these companies must have given us our share of oil production. However, you gave them the Turkmen state's share and still have debts. For, they bribed you. How can I understand you, the hero of the Turkmen people. If I cover up all your acts, I will be to blame before the nation. If I don't disclose your secrets to the people, you will remain the hero and I will join the ones who conceal impious acts. I am not going to forgive you, and will do nothing for you."
In addition to high ranking officials of the sector, representatives of public at large were also attending the meeting. Millions of Turkmenistan citizens listened to the statement of their leader on TV. It is not by chance that the President said the words addressed generally to the compatriots.
"What I'm saying to you is only one part", the head of state said. "You must know what a manager he was, then, you'll understand me. While some Turkmens extract oil and gas, build villages, there are others who rob us. He didn't rob me, he stole your money. The revenues Turkmenistan gets from the oil production give us the possibility to increase production, oil processing, your wages, to improve living conditions of people, to build schools, kindergartens, to better the transportation services for people."
At the same time, Saparmurat Niyazov especially stressed that he'll fight corruption among the officials to the end.
"I assure you that I'll ensure the order in Turkmenistan", the President said. - "In our country, even crimes are not committed daily. Literary, there are some cases of domestic crimes in a week. However, we have some managers committing malfeasance in office... They deliberately mix their own property with the state one, their own property with the people's one. We will continue the struggle with it. We don't intend to imprison people. On the contrary, in the nearest future, we will release 8,000 out of 14 thousand prisoners on the act of amnesty. They will be those who repented and chose the correct way of life. The law enforcing agencies are working on it now. These people are our compatriots. However, it will not spread the former high ranking officials. They will not be forgiven."
... The Turkmen TV broadcast this meeting and Saparmurat Niyazov's statement for several days. The President's speech has become an original address to the people on corruption among high ranking officials. Unwillingly, the taxi-driver that had dropped me to the hotel recurred to my memory. It seemed that he was quite sincere in assuring that the life in Ashgabat was no worse, and in some things even better, than in the European capitals. Reflecting on it, I see the direct link between his reasoning and actions of the Turkmen leader. There is a direct reflection of the struggle against corruption and the state approach to the use of national wealth on the wellbeing of the population. It is reflected on the living standards of those people who try to catch taxis on the streets of Ashgabat, have the opportunity go to work and return home on the taxi and, in the future, would want to drive their own cars. Even if they don't own foreign cars, they have clear conscience...
Sergei ZUEV, journalist.
Ashgabat - Moscow