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reflections

Jan 3, 2018 | 17:37 GMT

5 mins read

Viewing Turkmenistan's Recent Car Ban in Black and White

Starting Jan. 1, Turkmenistan no longer permits the driving of black cars.
(TERRAXPLORER/iStock)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

As people around the world celebrate the new year and embark on their respective resolutions, the president of Turkmenistan has issued a curious resolution for his own country. Starting Jan. 1, the country no longer permits the driving of black cars, according to a report by the opposition-run publication Chronicles of Turkmenistan. The report also claimed that authorities have confiscated dark vehicles over the past two months, returning them to their owners with instructions to paint them white or another light color.

Such a decision may seem arbitrary, and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has given no official reason for it. However, unnamed Turkmen officials have attributed the decision to Berdymukhamedov's "personal preference" for the color white and, indeed, the Turkmen leader is known to be superstitious and believe that white is a lucky color. In recent years, Berdymukhamedov has started using a convoy of white limousines to travel to public events and reportedly instructed other high-level Turkmen officials to do the same.

These kinds of eccentric initiatives are not uncommon in Turkmenistan, a remote country in Central Asia with a population of just over 5 million people and a territory consisting of more than 80 percent desert. Its small and clustered population — concentrated along irrigation channels and river basins in the extreme north and south of the country — has facilitated a highly centralized government dominated by a powerful president. Turkmenistan also holds one of the largest concentrations of natural gas reserves in the world, typically earning enough from exports to allow the country's leadership to pursue large-scale personal initiatives as desired.

Take, for instance, the country's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, who ruled for 15 years after Turkmenistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. After dubbing himself Turkmenbashi, or "leader of all Turkmen," Niyazov erected revolving gold statues of himself and renamed several cities, streets and even months after himself and his family members. He invested billions of dollars in theme parks and tourist resorts that have not come close to recuperating their costs. And he wrote a book of poetry and spiritual guide called Rukhnama, which became a mandatory part of the curriculum in all Turkmen schools.

Berdymukhamedov, who took over after Niyazov's sudden death from a heart attack at the end of 2006, initially showed restraint when it came to self-aggrandizing projects, taking down some Turkmenbashi statues and de-emphasizing Rukhnama in schools. But over the years he has increasingly come to resemble Niyazov. In 2014, Berdymukhamedov spearheaded an initiative to remove air conditioning units from apartment buildings in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat, which can reach temperatures of over 41 degrees Celsius in the summer months, for purely aesthetic purposes. Then in 2015, Ashgabat gained a new golden statue — of Berdymukhamedov riding a horse atop a marble cliff.

Thus, the president's recent prohibition of black cars does not come in isolation, or even out of nowhere. Turkmenistan first introduced a ban on the importation of dark vehicles in 2015; the new ban on driving such vehicles seems intended to finish the job by eliminating them entirely. And in Turkmenistan, where presidents have proven willing and able to remake the country in their own image, it's possible the day will soon come when there are no dark cars within its borders.

It's worth noting that Berdymukhamedov's initiative is not just eccentric; it's also costly. There are reports that car painting fees have doubled from $500 to $1,000 — a hefty sum in a country where the average monthly wage is believed to be in the range of $200-$300. And though Turkmenistan's media is highly regulated and government-controlled, reports and anecdotal evidence suggest the country is facing mounting economic difficulties. The collapse of global energy prices in 2014 (and the loss of key importers like Russia and Iran) was not kind to Turkmenistan. Prices for key food items like bread have been rising since early 2015, when the country devalued its currency by nearly 20 percent. And in recent months, the Turkmen government has drastically reduced or eliminated subsidies for staples like water, electricity and fuel, as well as reportedly reduced food rations for members of the military.

These economic pressures have not yet spurred major protests or large scale anti-government activity, likely because of Turkmenistan's centralized political system (opposition parties are for all intents and purposes banned) and powerful security institutions. The country's closed media environment makes it particularly difficult to gauge true levels of social unrest. But social media accounts and non-state media have reported small demonstrations over economic grievances, and when taken in the broader context of recent economic and political developments in the country, the latest initiative to ban dark cars and the associated cost of repainting them could certainly contribute to growing frustrations within the country. In the coming years, Berdymukhamedov's superstitious whims could prove to have serious ramifications.

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