* President pledges to sharply raise living standards
* President's promises reflect country's giant gas wealth
* Economy is growing fast on bigger gas exports to China
* But critics say most people still get by on $300 a month
By Marat Gurt
TURKMENBASHI, Turkmenistan, Oct 23 The president
of gas-rich Turkmenistan on Tuesday promised to raise salaries
and pensions and to transform the former Soviet republic from an
agrarian nation into an industrial one, heralding what he called
"The Happiness and Might Epoch".
President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov also said he planned to
extend the time that pupils spent at secondary school from ten
years to 12 years, promising he would use the Central Asian
country's gas wealth to push up living standards.
Berdymukhamedov's promises appeared to reflect
Turkmenistan's ambitious plans to sharply increase gas
production between now and 2030 even as foreign energy majors
compete for access to its hydrocarbon riches.
Turkmenistan sits on some of the largest natural gas
reserves in the world.
"This means that we will make yet another step to boost the
well-being of our nation and move closer to the level of the
developed nations," he told a 2,500-strong audience of
grey-bearded elders, lawmakers, ministers and regional
"Free natural gas, electricity, water and salt, as well as
minimal public transport prices - all this already testifies to
our success story."
The mainly Muslim desert nation of 5.5 million, where the
55-year-old Berdymukhamedov wields sweeping powers and enjoys a
growing personality cult, is at the same time listed by human
rights bodies among the world's most repressive states.
A qualified dentist with a passion for sports cars and
thoroughbred horses, Berdymukhamedov was elected president in
February 2007 after the sudden death of his flamboyant
autocratic predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.
"Entering the third decade of our independence, we usher in
'The Happiness and Might Epoch'," said Berdymukhamedov, speaking
in a Caspian city bearing the late Niyazov's title which means
"Head of the Turkmen".
Turkmenistan will celebrate the 21st anniversary of its
independence from the Soviet Union on Oct. 27 and he said
salaries would be raised by 10 percent and pensions by 15
percent starting from next year.
"Our task is to turn Turkmenistan from an agrarian country
into an industrial nation. Our gross domestic product has grown
by 11.1 percent so far this year," he added, speaking in a
waterside white-marble palace reminiscent of Rome's Coliseum.
Pledging to diversify the economy, Berdymukhamedov said he
would develop chemical and light industries as well as the
construction and pharmaceuticals industries. He would also
launch Turkmenistan's first satellite, he said.
Once one of the most backward of the 15 Soviet republics,
the International Monetary Fund forecasts Turkmenistan will
enjoy real GDP growth of about 8 percent in 2012-13, after a
strong 14.7 percent rise in 2011 on the back of bigger gas
exports to China and a surge in public investment.
However, critics argue that its rapid economic growth has
not benefited many of its ordinary citizens, while marble
palaces and luxury hotels have sprung up in the capital
Turkmenistan has recently started lifting heavily subsidised
prices on some key goods like bread and petrol. Critics say that
Niyazov-era free gas and electricity serve mainly to supplement
modest monthly wages averaging about $300.
Berdymukhamedov, who is widely nicknamed "Arkadag" or The
Patron, has relaxed some of his predecessor's policies, allowing
wider access to the Internet and letting Turkmen citizens study
His promises of a better life for his citizens were greeted
with rapturous applause and the thunderous chanting of "Glory to
Arkadag! Glory to the Hero!".
(Reporting by Marat Gurt; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing
by Andrew Osborn)