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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 5 February, 2003, 13:55 GMT
Top Turkmens to get free Mercs
Market in Ashgabat
Mineral wealth has done little for the Turkmen people
The government of Turkmenistan - rich in natural resources but with per-capita incomes at sub-Saharan African levels - is to start handing out free Mercedes-Benz cars.

The move is an attempt to make good on a 1992 promise - that all Turkmen families would own a house and a car within a decade.

Turkmenistan
But President Saparmurad Niyazov, whose dictatorial policies are widely blamed for Turkmenistan's poverty, will initially only be handing out free cars to top officials.

And at the same time, he is to introduce a new commission to monitor foreign trips by politicians, and to track the movements of foreigners within Turkmenistan.

Driving force

The Mercedes offer is characteristic of Mr Niyazov's paternalistic style of government.

His rule, which began under the Soviet regime in 1985, has shown increasing tendencies towards a cult of personality, including his adoption of the title Turkmenbashi - "father of the Turkmen peoples".

Under the new plan, all ministers, committee heads, regional bosses and other top officials will receive a new Mercedes every year, with instructions to pass on their old cars to their staff.

"We have the right to have something to be proud of," Mr Niyazov told an enthusiastic cabinet meeting.

Tough times

The generosity has, however, gone hand in hand with measures to tighten state control.

Saparmurad Niyazov
The moves could help shore up Mr Niyazov's position
The new commission will effectively make it difficult for opposition politicians to leave the country.

And it will tighten already strict regulations on the activities of foreign nationals within Turkmenistan.

The commission is part of a package of security measures, enacted in the wake of an assassination attempt on Mr Niyazov last November.

While dozens have been rounded up and sentenced to lengthy jail terms, some allege that the failed assassination was cooked up by Mr Niyazov to shore up his popularity.

Rich and poor

Turkmenistan is immensely rich in natural resources.

Statue of Saparmurad Niyazov
Mr Niyazov is the focus of a cult of personality
Aside from substantial deposits of precious metals, it has the potential to become a major gas producer, boasting proven gas reserves on a par with Iraq.

After independence in 1991, Mr Niyazov promised that Turkmenistan would become a second Kuwait.

But the absolute lack of free-market reform, poor relations with international lenders, and the absence of foreign investment have hobbled the gas industry.

As a result, Turkmenistan now has annual national income of just $670 per head - equivalent to that of Africa's Ivory Coast.

See also:

25 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
16 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
30 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
26 Nov 02 | Asia-Pacific
25 Nov 02 | Asia-Pacific
19 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
13 Aug 02 | Asia-Pacific
08 Aug 02 | Asia-Pacific
28 Sep 02 | Country profiles
28 Sep 02 | Asia-Pacific
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