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Turkmen leader calls for end to free water, gas and power

By our correspondents
June 08, 2017

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan: Turkmenistan’s authoritarian leader has called for an end to free gas, electricity and water, state media reported on Wednesday, in a major shake-up for the reclusive state as its economic woes deepen.

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov branded the popular subsidies introduced by his eccentric late predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov over two decades ago "completely ineffective," the state newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan said.

Niyazov, who used the moniker "Father of the Turkmen", made water, electricity and gas free in 1993 shortly after the energy-rich country gained independence from the Soviet Union.

The government mouthpiece reported that Berdymukhamedov "gave instructions" to the deputy prime minister in charge of economic affairs "to prepare proposals for the cancellation of all benefits".

The 59-year-old strongman, who exerts a firm grip over the country of five million, said the allowances would remain for "those who genuinely require social assistance".

Central Asian Turkmenistan sits on the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves, and sells most of its gas to China.

It has been struggling to cope with a fall in energy prices since 2014 and a decision by Russia to end its purchase of gas from the country.

Since the government shaved a fifth off the currency’s official value at the beginning of 2015, one dollar is equal to 3.5 manat, while on the black market the greenback can fetch up to six manat.

Currently each Turkmen citizen has the right to free monthly allowances of 35 kilowatt hours of electricity and 50 cubic metres of gas, as well as 250 litres of water every day.

For those with low incomes such as 59-year-old Selbi Orazova, the free utilities are vital, and she hopes she will qualify to keep them.

"I hope the cancellation of the benefits won’t affect pensioners. The president said they should be kept for those in need -- I am in need," she told AFP.

"All my life I’ve looked after my family and kept house," she said, adding that because of this, her monthly pension is 350 manat, or just over $100 at the official rate.