* 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 (Reuters) - 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 delegates.
“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 Ashgabat.
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 abroad.
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)