A customer enters a store in Turkmenistan’s northern Dashoguz Province.
“I’d like to buy some sugar and some cooking oil, please.”
Store employee: “Certainly. Just put your name on this list and we’ll call you when it’s your turn.”
Customer: “And when might that be?”
Store employee: “Four, maybe five weeks.”
For some in Dashoguz Province, that is the new reality.
Qishloq Ovozi, with a great deal of help from RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, has been following the growing economic decline in Turkmenistan and its effects on the people of the country for months.
As difficult as it is to get a clear look into Central Asia’s “hermit kingdom,” it has become obvious the country is in a severe economic crisis, despite what the government says or what state media reports.
Turkmenistan at the moment is a failing state and it is a fascinating and disturbing process, but also one that we can learn from.
"Disturbing" because it has shown how a government with the fourth-largest reserves of natural gas in the world and a population of a mere 5 million can squander wealth and bring its people to the verge of poverty and hunger.
"Fascinating" because we are getting a look at the limits of the people’s patience, just how much the majority of a population can endure before social upheaval erupts.
As many worthy authorities have pointed out, Central Asia’s dictatorships survive and act as they do because of a tacit contract that allows the elite, especially the presidents, to live extremely well as long as the state can provide the basic needs for its people.
That contract appears to be broken now in Turkmenistan.
Let’s return to Dashoguz and see what’s happening.
People have been telling Azatlyk about their deteriorating situation there. Obviously, I do not intend to give anyone’s name or specifically identify what area of the province they live in. The repercussions for challenging the government’s narrative of a “Golden Age” can be quite severe.
But one woman told Azatlyk she went to buy sugar and cooking oil at the local state store and was put on a waiting list.
When she told her story, she had already been waiting 35 days for a call saying her goods had arrived.
“On the shelves of state stores, there is nothing except sunflower seeds and gum,” she said.
When supplies do arrive, they come in small quantities, so only four or five people at a time get these basic products. And they are rationed. One family can purchase up to five liters of cooking oil and one kilogram of sugar.
“And they force you to buy carbonated water with these products,” she said.
Dear readers, your guess is as good as mine about that part.
Actually, those in Dashoguz who live in villages where state stores are open are the lucky ones. Many state stores have reportedly closed due to lack of merchandise and their usual patrons are forced to travel to neighboring areas, or further afield, sometimes as far as 200 kilometers from their homes, searching for basic necessities like sugar and cooking oil.
There are private stores, but as Azatlyk learned, the price of sugar in a state store is some two manats per kilogram while in private stores the cost is nine manats (the official rate is 3.5 manats to the U.S. dollar, the black market rate is 6 to 7 manats to the dollar). Five liters of cooking oil costs 15 manats in state stores, 55 manats in private stores.
And even the private stores are not always open. Authorities have reportedly been carrying out unannounced checks on inventories in private stores and levying taxes or fines on the spot, which has led some storeowners to shut down their operations if they suspect officials are coming to visit.
Even if all the privately owned stores were open, most people cannot afford to pay such prices. Qishloq Ovozi has previously reported about wage arrears in Turkmenistan. The situation has not improved.
An amended version of the law on “food security” was adopted toward the end of November that required the availability of food for the population. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ordered the government to ensure the law was carried out and also that no one was raising prices above fixed rates for basic goods, particularly ahead of the New Year’s holiday.
According to testimony from the people who spoke with Azatlyk, not only in Dashoguz but also in the southwestern Balkan Province, that order has gone unfulfilled.
The prevalence and scope of these shortages would seem to indicate it is not corruption or mismanagement that is to blame but simply a shortage of supplies.
Which brings us back to the tacit contract.
Central Asia is full of examples of emirs and khans who taxed their people into poverty and neglected to provide for their basic needs. Eventually, the people usually overthrew such leaders.
In Kyrgyzstan, home to a much more dynamic political culture than Turkmenistan's, we have seen the limits of the people’s tolerance. Since 2005, Kyrgyzstan’s people have twice chased their presidents from power, both times when it appeared to the people that these presidents were concentrating too much into their own hands and those of family members.
But Kyrgyzstan is an exception in Central Asia.
The type of government in Turkmenistan is more comparable to what exists in Uzbekistan, and increasingly in Tajikistan.
In Uzbekistan, leaving aside the Andijon violence of May 2005, there have been isolated outbreaks of unrest, almost always caused by lack of basic goods or drastic increases in prices. But these were always localized problems. They affected one area but not the vast majority of the country, so it never led to a wider conflagration.
Turkmenistan’s current socioeconomic situation is more uniform; it appears to be affecting the entire country.
For those wondering where the limit of patience is in Central Asia, how much can the people there endure before reaching a breaking point, the present conditions in Turkmenistan are offering unique insight.