Developments Since Independence
Following independence in 1991, the country experienced several years of economic decline caused by the break-up of traditional economic ties, poor harvests, and problems related to energy exports such as economic mismanagement, payment, and transportation. The economy was hit hard in 1997 when non-payments by the Commonwealth of Independent States countries forced a suspension of virtually all natural gas exports.
By 1998, however, the economy began to recover and with the resumption of natural gas exports to Ukraine and Russia in 1999-2000, recovery accelerated. According to official statistics, real gross domestic product (GDP) has been increasing by an average of 12 percent annually since 2004.
Another contributor to this recovery has been large-scale, mainly state-driven, investments averaging over 22 percent of GDP in oil refineries, textiles, food processing, transportation, and various construction projects. Although alternative estimates by international financial organizations indicate that the growth rates may have been lower than official estimates, the economy appears to have expanded strongly over the last few years.
Recent Economic Developments
The global economic crisis has had little impact so far on relatively insulated, gas-rich Turkmenistan. Growth was strong in 2008, fuelled by large public investments funded with booming hydrocarbon revenue. In contrast to the serious decline in international oil and gas prices, the contract price for Turkmenistan’s large gas exports—mainly to Russia—is rising, as it converges to European levels. Both the external current account and the budget are going to remain in large surplus in 2009, despite a rapid increase in public investments with strong import content. Inflation appeared to exceeding single digit by mid 2008 due to rising food prices, the early effects of exchange rate unification and the progressive adjustment of administered fuel and transportation prices but it has since been declining since.
Thanks to rising export revenues from natural gas, crude oil and oil products, which accounted for about 90 percent of Turkmenistan’s merchandise exports, the current account surplus widened further both in 2007 and 2008, which allowed Turkmenistan to rapidly accumulate its international reserves. Strong export receipts have helped the authorities to keep Turkmenistan’s external debt stock comparatively low since 2002, thereby insuring that its debt-service burden is at low risk of debt distress. Turkmenistan’s fiscal stance continued to be prudent, with large budget surplus generated over recent years thanks to higher hydrocarbon revenues.
Since 1991, Turkmenistan has adopted a cautious approach to economic reforms, but has recently made some progress in this area. A program of reforms was initiated in the social, hydrocarbon, financial and industrial sectors at the beginning of 2007 with the aim to achieve strong and sustainable economic growth by integrating Turkmenistan into the international economy, improve job creation and living standards of population.
On January 1, 2008 the Government started the process of gradual unification of the dual exchange rates with the appreciation of the parallel rate and the devaluation of the official rate as the first step in improving business environment for private sector, introducing market based pricing mechanisms and developing the financial sector. The Central Bank of Turkmenistan permitted all banks to open foreign exchange windows and issued foreign exchange regulations indicating commitment of the authorities to provide unrestricted access to foreign exchange for payments and transfers for international transactions. The process of unification was completed by the authorities on May 1, 2008 through the unification of the official and parallel markets at the rate of manat 14250 per US dollars. The unified exchange rate has been stable, with no evidence of a gap with the rate in the informal market.
The process of redenomination of the Turkmen manat at the rate of 5,000 old manat per one new manat was started on January 1, 2009. The process is proceeding smoothly and the Central Bank of Turkmenistan has recently reported that 80 % of the old banknotes have been exchanged.
A Stabilization Fund of Turkmenistan, which performs the accumulation and stabilization functions, was created in October 2008. The Fund accumulates means from the balance of profitable part of the budget. The presence of the Stabilization Fund is called to reduce dependence of the country’s economy on energy complex and to lower unfavorable impact of external factors.
The authorities indicated their interest in attracting foreign direct investment in different sectors by having introduced changes to the country’s investment regime through the adoption and implementation of the new Law of Turkmenistan on Foreign Investments. The introduced changes represented a positive step toward bringing Turkmenistan’s investment regime closer to the international best practices. As a result a number of international oil and gas companies have started exploring opportunities in the country.
The trade system appears to remain restrictive as almost all trade transactions (domestic and foreign) must be registered with the Turkmen State Commodity Exchange. However, the authorities have recently taken steps to introduce modest trade liberalization measures in the form of reduced duty and excise taxes which could be possibly complemented in the future by the removal of some non-tariff trade barriers.
Turkmen President approved the National Rural Development Program (2008-2020) in December 2007 by committing to invest part of country’s considerable natural resource wealth in projects in rural infrastructure to improve social and living standards in rural areas. The plan has been geared heavily towards massive improvement of the rural infrastructure such as communal services (water, electricity, and gas), rural health facilities, schools, kindergartens and rural access roads.
Virtually all cotton and wheat crops are still grown under the state order system and procured by the state, however, a number of initiatives have been recently taken by the Turkmen Government in agricultural sector to introduce new incentives for farmers to boost productivity in the form of increased prices and unrestricted access to lines of credit.
The authorities have announced new direction for an overhaul of the health and education systems and stressed the need for the Turkmen education system to be on par with international standards in teaching and learning. The education system undergone several important developments in 2007, including extension of the mandatory number of years of schooling from 9 to 10, reduction of the teaching workload for school teachers and major investments in modern infrastructure and equipment.
The main challenges facing Turkmenistan are to continue and broaden process of the economic and social reforms started in 2007 to improve prospects for fundamental shift towards a market economy, increase employment and improve living standards of population by efficiently utilizing Turkmenistan’s considerable natural resource wealth.
Strengthening macroeconomic stability, liberalizing the foreign trade regime, reducing the role of the state, and privatizing are also key challenges. Other reform challenges include the following:
Turkmenistan’s top development priority is to ensure that a sound and transparent system of public resource management is in place. With a better system, Turkmenistan could use its considerable natural resource wealth to improve basic living standards of population and reverse the deterioration in the provision of social services in recent years. At the same time given the Government’s plans for massive investment in rural development, developing a robust investment appraisal capacity mechanism is critical for improving efficiency of spending and the effectiveness of service delivery to the population.
- Agriculture and rural development
Rural development accounts for about 22 percent of GDP and is a source of livelihood for more than half of the population. The sector is characterized by production of cotton and wheat, according to state orders and enjoys significant subsidies from the state; however, some market features have been recently introduced. Continuation of the reforms in the rural economy which operated for many years under state control over inputs and marketing through state orders would be important to improve living standards of rural population.
- Private sector development
Given the Government’s intention to increase the share of private sector in the economy from the current 40% (outside of oil and gas) to 70% by 2020 Turkmenistan needs to dramatically improve its business environment, particularly for small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Creating a business environment conducive to private sector development, by simplifying business regulations and warranting access to financial resources, both credit lines and foreign exchange is critical to ensure a more decisive role for the private sector and especially for foreign direct investments in the overall economy.
- Environment and social indicators
Turkmenistan needs to substantially improve living standards of the Turkmen people by addressing environmental, water, and lifestyle problems. Faced with droughts and extreme weather conditions, and limited capacity to forecast, manage and adapt to the climatic changes, Turkmenistan remains environmentally vulnerable. The quality of education and basic health services needs also to be improved significantly especially in the rural areas. Turkmen Government launched its national rural development program in 2007 to develop infrastructure in the regions and rural areas by investing heavily in health and educational facilities. In this regard, the issues of effective use of the improved facilities and equipment, curriculum renewal, and teacher training are of importance for all levels of education in the country.