It appears the people of Turkmenistan are headed for another hungry winter, the third such winter in as many years. And like the two previous years, it seems this time the government is not even prepared to admit there is a problem.
The harvest is gathered. But so far there is no word as to whether croplands yielded the 1.6 million tons of grain the government targeted for this year, although that seems unlikely.
The Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) website reported on the government's ominous silence on July 22, noting: "The grain harvest in Turkmenistan has finished.... However, there were no reports about successful collection of the state grain target of 1.6 million tons."
The grain production goal in Turkmenistan has been 1.6 million tons since 2011, when President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov claimed (we'll get to Turkmen official claims below) the country hit that figure, allowing Turkmenistan to export "for the first time in its history" 150,000 tons of wheat and 50,000 tons of flour.
ATN reported that the grain harvest for 2015 was 1.4 million tons and in 2017 it was only about 1 million tons. Turkmenistan's government reported the grain harvest was 1.6 million tons in 2016 and just over 1 million tons in 2017.
Drought, Torrential Rain, And A Freak Windstorm
This year, the weather reportedly damaged Turkmenistan's crops. Early spring was unusually dry; then torrential rains hit the country in mid-May, flooding many areas of the country, followed at the end of May by a freak windstorm that carried salt from the dried-up Aral Sea and deposited it on fields in Turkmenistan's northern Dashoguz and eastern Lebap provinces.
By mid-June, some farmers in the northern Dashoguz Province were complaining to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, that the state had not sent the necessary fertilizer or machinery to fields and predicted a poor harvest.
Most of Turkmenistan's people have been coping with flour shortages since autumn 2016. Flour and baked bread is currently rationed, and oftentimes citizens wait in long lines outside state stores and, once inside, need to show identification to purchase their allotment.
ATN noted that government officials are currently on holiday and, "Once their holiday is over, the government will analyze the results of the harvest."
What the government eventually says should be interesting. Failure to meet targets invites an unpleasant response from President Berdymukhammedov.
Last year officials were predicting as late as June 27 that the country would product 1.6 million tons. When it was discovered that production was nearly 40 percent short of that figure, Berdymukhammedov severely criticized many officials, from village and district heads to ministers and the head of the newly-built Garlyk fertilizer plant.
Reporting the true figures for this year could cost many officials their jobs and these officials will be aware of this. Azatlyk reported on July 12 that regional heads in the Dashoguz Province were beating leaders of collective farms that failed to meet grain quotas.
If Turkmenistan announces it has met, or nearly met, the target figure, there will be many questions.
Any figures the Turkmen government has provided in the past about virtually any sector of its economy are suspect, and grain production is a prime example.
Berdymukhammedov's predecessor, Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, set the target figure for grain production at 1.2 million tons in 1992. For most of the 1990s the country never even came close to meeting that goal (the harvest for 1996 was some 488,000 tons). Niyazov reprimanded and fired officials for failing to meet grain quotas, just as Berdymukhammedov has been doing.
But in March 1998, as planting was starting, Niyazov told a meeting of the government that if quotas for grain and cotton went unmet, those responsible "at all levels" would be held accountable and could face criminal charges.
That year Turkmenistan met its target of 1.2 million tons, and parliament and the cabinet honored Niyazov by bestowing the "Altyn Oi (Golden Moon)" award upon him (it was Niyazov's third such award and he was the only person ever to receive it). It heralded the era of dubious grain production reports as the country harvested 1.4 million tons in 1999, 1.7 tons in 2000 (which was a drought year), 2 million tons in 2001, 2.3 million in 2002, and by 2006, the last year Niyazov was alive, the country reported the grain harvest was 3.5 million tons.
Of course, in 2006 Turkmenistan's State Institute for Statistics also claimed the country's population was 6.786 million, though the population even today is believed to be about 5 million people.
It would seem pointless for any official to deny this year's harvest is a disaster. The truth will become clear for Turkmenistan's people soon enough.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.