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Paying For Patriotism In Turkmenistan

Get Healthy! That’s An Order.
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WATCH: It’s that time of year when Turkmenistan rolls out its program for the Month of Health and Happiness campaign. Government employees, school children, and students are ordered to engage in physical exercise under the threat of losing their jobs.

It's National Health Month again in Turkmenistan, and I'm sure many of you have seen the photographs and videos of the people of Turkmenistan exercising all around the capital, Ashgabat, and other places around the country.

Some of them might not appear to be in the best physical shape, but they certainly all look happy. They have to; it's their patriotic duty, and they could lose their jobs if they were not out there smiling and exercising.

But these public expressions of patriotic pride in a healthy population have a price, and it's the people who are paying it.

Obviously, these health events are rehearsed and staged, as the color-coordination of the participants indicates -- sections of bicycle riders or joggers wearing blue or green or some other color clothing. It's very reminiscent of holiday celebrations in North Korea.

That got us wondering about what happens before these events take place -- what preparations are needed to stage something like National Health Month. So RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, did some investigating and here's what we found out.

April 7 was the day of the big bicycle ride. One of the great images to come from this event is the photograph of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov riding a bike, wearing his safety helmet, sunglasses, and dressed in a green and white sweat suit.

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To me personally the picture says, "Gaze upon me and despair," but also provides a look at what participants must have to ride their bicycles with the rest of Turkmenistan's health-loving people in public.

To participate in the bike-riding portion of Health Month obviously one needs a bicycle. Look close and you'll notice they all have pretty much the same bicycles. As mentioned, there are sections of bike-riders wearing blue, or green, or white sweat suits, and everybody is wearing a safety helmet (as everybody always should).

The responsibility for purchasing the proper bicycle, equipment, and attire falls entirely on the rider. The cost -- 850 manats, or about $210 at the official rate.

We didn't have much luck finding out who sells the bicycles. All we could find out was that the company responsible is a member of the Trade and Entrepreneurs Association and the stores that sell the bicycles in Ashgabat are called Olympia.

Although there are bicycle shops in Turkmenistan, it is not left up to the participants to go to one of these stores and buy a bicycle. Our correspondent in Ashgabat, Amanmyrat Bugaev, said ministries, for example, calculate how many people will participate and someone from the individual ministries purchases that number of bicycles and accoutrements. Participants reimburse their organizations for the cost.

Ministries and other organizations fielding riders and joggers receive instructions beforehand about which colors their personnel are supposed to wear to these events.

When state camera crews fan out across the city to record the healthy and happy people of Turkmenistan, there are two categories of participants in the events -- those actually riding or running, and the enthusiastic spectators.

For those actually engaging in exercise, rehearsals for their part in festivities may have started as far back as 20 to 25 days before the big day. On the day of the event, these participants must show up several hours ahead of the start.

Bugaev said the arrival time for spectators depended on the event. If President Berdymukhammedov is scheduled to join in, spectators must be in place three to four hours ahead of the starting time. Elderly people are allowed to bring folding chairs but these must all be removed 20 minutes before the event begins. The spectacle itself rarely lasts even two hours.

Based on material from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service
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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.