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Last Updated: Monday, 1 March, 2004, 15:11 GMT
Troops to replace Turkmen medics
By Monica Whitlock
BBC Central Asia correspondent

Turkmenistan soldiers
Conscripts from the army will trade battle-dress for hospital wear
President Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan has ordered the dismissal of 15,000 medical workers.

It is likely that at least some of the hospital work left behind would now be done by conscript soldiers.

The Turkmen leader said the move would reduce state spending on healthcare and the workers will not be replaced.

Cheaply-employed conscripts perform a number of jobs in Turkmenistan - from policing traffic on the streets to working in factories.

However, it is not clear how much training the soldiers will receive before entering the health service.

Cheap labour

The cuts come in every department of the health service but some special groups are targeted - nurses, midwives, school health visitors and orderlies.

This means that very many of those now redundant are women treating other women and children.

President Niyazov says the cuts are part of a restructuring of the health service which is being privatised.

Instead of free health care for all, Turkmens are now supposed to take out insurance to cover most health needs.

It is true that the Turkmen health service is in very poor shape - but critics argue that the mass sacking was done without consultation or real planning.

The army will likely be called in to fill some gaps, as has happened before.

Two years ago, all the traffic policemen were sacked and now the streets are patrolled by army recruits.

And a clothes factory in the ancient city of Merv is staffed by the military.

President Niyazov, who recently banned men from keeping beards, apparently makes his decisions single-handedly.

There is no real parliament or any political checks and balances.

International bodies tend to have their movements restricted in Turkmenistan, while foreign governments tend not to raise their voices against the president's methods.

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