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Turkmenistan's leader angered by poor grain yield

Saturday - 7/7/2012, 2:09am  ET

By ALEXANDER VERSHININ

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (AP) - The authoritarian president of Turkmenistan has shaken up his government after a disappointing grain harvest and has sought to forestall discontent by announcing salary hikes after a spike in bread prices.

President Gurbanbuly Berdymukhamedov fired the agriculture minister for poor performance and rebuked four provincial governors for various shortcomings, state newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan reported Saturday.

Merdan Bayramov, who served as the former Soviet Central Asian nation's agriculture minister from January 2011, was replaced by his deputy, Rejep Bazarov. Other officials in the sector were also replaced.

The wheat harvest this year fell 25 percent short of the 1.6 million ton state target.

Prices for bread at state-run stores increased threefold Friday. The cost of one kilogram of flour also increased twofold to $0.35, which is likely to drive up prices for bread produced in private bakeries.

Staple foodstuffs are heavily subsidized, meaning the cost increase will likely have limited impact on the welfare of all but the very poorest. The long-term guarantee of state subsidies are at the heart of the virtual nonexistence of dissent, however, and hints of an imminent price-liberalizing policy could create ill-will.

In a lengthy Cabinet meeting Friday, Berdymukhamedov was unusually candid and detailed in his criticisms of his isolated country's agricultural industry.

Berdymukhamedov earlier this week had awarded luxury Cadillac SUVs to the government of the northeastern Lebap Province on Afghanistan's border for its particularly prodigious wheat output.

Governors from remaining four regions were severely chastised for failing to do their part, however.

He singled out the western Balkan Province for over-concentrating on cotton and wheat crops, while failing to develop cattle-rearing.

In a possible effort to mitigate concerns over price rises, Berdymukhamedov also announced a 10 percent increase in state salaries starting from next year. Pensions will rise by 15 percent, with retirees in the highest band receiving $260 monthly.

Turkmenistan, an energy-rich nation of 5 million people, has been ruled by Berdymukhamedov since the 2006 death of its eccentric authoritarian leader, Saparmurat Niyazov.

The country's economy is still profoundly state-dominated and Soviet-style production targets remain the norm. Generous subsidies for most basic household requirements, such as electricity and gas, have kept the cost of living extremely low.


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)