The last moments of the sun cast a pastel fire across the city of Mary in northern Turkmenistan, and five young men are sitting around a table at an outdoor bar getting edgy. ‘Those guys over there,’ says my friend Anatoly, ‘are waiting for the sun to go down so they can break their fast with beer and cigarettes. Welcome to Ramadan, Central Asia style!’
As the night went on, and we found ourselves toasting Yuri Gagarin for some reason, Anatoly became tetchy about me lighting up. ‘It is no longer legal,’ he drawled in his Slavic baritone.
‘But everyone is smoking,’ I pointed out, noting the embers hovering over the lads’ table, and all of the others around us. The bar is probably bugged, and as one of few tourists in the country, we may have been being watched. ‘I am not guilty!’ he laughed.
A desert country in the south of Central Asia bordering Iran and Afghanistan, the days are scorching, and the nights are for ribald consumption, where vodka is washed down with beer and polite company eats their shashlik with their hands to fully appreciate the texture and the flavour of the meat. Cigarettes are widely enjoyed after the heat of the day has dissipated.
Against this background, I was surprised to see that not long after my return from Turkmenistan that in late July, the UN’s World Health Organisation lauded the country, infamous for its personality cult and authoritarian rule, for having the lowest smoking rates in the world, of eight per cent. Nevermind the country’s routine fudging of statistics, including its ongoing dispute about the size of their population with the UN – which the regime says is 6 million, while the UN says it is 5 – it won’t be ‘eight per cent’ for much longer.
It all started in 1997, when the late President Niyazov – the one whose megalomania resulted in building the gold statue of himself that rotated with the sun – had a massive heart attack. Anatoly says he was reputed to be a two pack a day smoker before he outlawed smoking in public to help him quit.
Gifted with organs more robust than his heart, his eccentricities increased, but as he renamed the days of the week after family members, his heart gave out on him again in 2006, dying at the age of 66. His successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, rumoured to be his illegitimate son, confirmed bastardry was in his bloodstock and kept up totalitarian rule as he took over the firm, only with added health zeal.
‘You can’t smoke on the streets anymore,’ says Anatoly , ‘but restaurants, it was okay. It was where people went to smoke. But this year, they said no more smoking in restaurants, and from next year, it’s completely banned everywhere. They will stop selling.’
We meet Petr, who has a standard job as a low-level bureaucrat, earning around US$350 per month. A pack a day smoker, he is pissed off that cigarettes have now gone up to US$6 a deck, with the price rising monthly. ‘What am I supposed to do?’ he says. ‘I have smoked for 30 years. I earn a public wage. Now I have to quit because the president says so?’
Finding romance in cigarettes isn’t for most people, but the situation leaves me flecked with sadness. The world’s premiere health bureaucracy is willing to accept an obvious falsehood from a disgraceful authoritarian regime, confirming the primacy of statistics over human experience. In a region where Putin’s new brand of authoritarianism has seen NGOs made effectively illegal on spurious claims of espionage, regimes remain happy to work with the World Health Organisation and their friends in the pharmaceutical industry. The prison systems, which are systematically designed to destroy the health and will of the prisoners through torture and forcible treatment with psychiatric medicine, are met only with occasional dull human rights platitudes.
As I ruminate on the regression back to Soviet-style absurdities at my favourite bar in the capital Ashgabat, I try to coax an ashtray out of my waitress Knesia.
‘You cannot smoke here.’
‘But that man is…’ and she shrugs and walks away. Assuming the fault in logic is mine, I move to the parapet housing the smoking man, and light up. The waitresses sit at the next table saying nothing. After a time, I ask for an ashtray.
‘There is no smoking here,’ one says.
I move again, shifting my table near to the man smoking with the ashtray under the parapet. I am half outside and half inside, and still ashing on the ground.
‘Do you want a cigarette?’ he asks.
‘No – I just want to sit where I can smoke.’
‘I can’t smoke anywhere?’
I plead again to Knesia, ‘but he is smoking. And he has an ashtray.’
‘There is no smoking,’ she says. ‘Put them on the ground.’
This exchange sees me quickly adopted by Rizik and his friends sitting nearby, who barely put one out. ‘They just have to say that,’ he laughs. ‘Everyone smokes!’ But what will they do from next year? ‘Well,’ he pauses. ‘We are waiting to see what happens.’
No one is particularly concerned that they won’t be able to buy cigarettes from next year. Cigarettes in neighbouring countries are around US$1 a packet, and with the existing northern corridor that smuggles subsidised fuel into Uzbekistan, tobacco will surely flow the other way. Even allowing for the constabulary to clip the ticket, it’s conceivable that the price will be lower under prohibition.
While locals oscillate between disbelief at the laws and faith in the black market, the large population of Turkish workers are a little more worried. Sami, an engineer with the firm Polimeks who are the favoured builders of the regime’s beloved marble buildings, says they now have signs in the toilets about how smoking will be banned everywhere, and not to sneak into the bathroom to light up.
Turkmenistan’s move to ban smoking means that the government is back in the business of intruding in the cultural sphere, something that was lifted to a degree with the fall of the Soviet Union. There is near universal acceptance that life has steadily improved in the last 25 years. It might be a police state, but at least there aren’t KGB agents everywhere; life isn’t easy, but the shelves are fully stocked.
Returning to Sydney to find bars measuring the non-smoking distance from doors and segregating eaters and smokers as if they are mutually exclusive, one can imagine how next year we’ll be fed tales of the virtues of the little health utopia sitting in the middle of the world. If only concern for the human condition crossed borders as easily as statistics and tobacco.
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