Turkmenistan has arguably been a study in authoritarian rule since it became an independent country in late 1991. Its leader is kept in power with the help of an efficient and ruthless security force that roots out the smallest hint of discontent and quickly silences even whispers of criticism.
But it has been hard times in Turkmenistan in recent years. The economy has been in severe decline and the country’s people have watched their standard of living plummet. Basic goods such as flour, sugar, and cooking oil are currently in short supply, as is medicine. Even cash is sometimes difficult to obtain. Costs of goods and services for citizens are increasing. New restrictions are making it more difficult for Turkmen citizens to travel outside the country, as some were doing to pursue work abroad. And the government has gradually cut back on citizens' benefits.
Tempers are now flaring, and grumbling has started. Incidents have occurred this year that have never been seen in Turkmenistan, and now words are being spoken publicly that have never been heard in the country.
RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, has been posting videos sent from citizens of Turkmenistan of bread lines.
(NOTE: Turkmen authorities do not like their citizens talking to RFE/RL and consequences for doing so can be severe, so we won’t be identifying anyone who spoke with us by name.)
On October 4, in the northern Turkmen city of Dashoguz, some 600 to 700 people stood in line to buy flour or bread. One person who was in that line said they arrived early in the morning and waited until 4:00 p.m. After that wait, they were able to buy three “chorek,” the round, flat bread of the region. “I didn’t hear that anyone succeeded in buying flour," the source added. "There is not enough flour.”
Although police routinely keep watch on any location where people gather, the crowd in Dashoguz reportedly showed signs of becoming unruly. In the video, a voice from the crowd can be heard saying, “They called for police.”
Another person who was waiting in line said arguments and scuffling started breaking out. Two policemen and a local elder were reportedly chased away when they arrived to speak to some of the hotheads, the source said. The witness said members of the National Security Ministry arrived.
“People were saying angrily that if Arkadag" -- “Protector,” the title state officials and media use to refer to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov -- "cannot provide for the people, he should leave his post,” the witness said.
In Turkmenistan, authorities consider such statements treasonous.
The National Security Ministry officers tried to make their way to where people were saying those things about the president, the witness said, but the crowd “chased away the officers.”
Failure to obey or confronting security forces could also be considered treasonous in Turkmenistan; it certainly has merited harsh punishment for some in the past.
This second person in the Dashoguz line said that eventually the security officers "got back in their cars and left.”
Bread lines are new for Turkmenistan. They generally did not exist before -- certainly not the sort of long lines that have been seen lately.
The lines are not all limited to stores. Authorities deposit wages and pensions into banks, and money must be withdrawn from ATMs, but those are often empty of cash. When they are stocked with money, lines form quickly, and reports suggest that supply rarely meets demand.
On October 3, some locals told Azatlyk there had been scuffles involving pensioners in a line at an ATM in the capital, Ashgabat. People waiting in that line also contacted Azatlyk. Apparently, part of the reason for the yelling and pushing was a request by some of the pensioners to be allowed to go to the front of the line. This is not only a common courtesy, but respect for elders is ingrained in the Central Asian psyche. But not in this case. In an atmosphere where people think money might run out at any time and not be available again for several days, younger people apparently did not want to allow pensioners to get ahead of them in line.
Traditional respect for elders in Turkmenistan might well have taken a hit after the Elders Council voted unanimously on September 25 to scrap free allotments of gas, electricity, and water that the state had been providing since not long after independence.
On October 3, a group of several dozen people in the eastern Lebap Province gathered and went to see the local Elders Council, according to an Azatlyk correspondent in Lebap. The group wanted answers about why the elders voted to end such free benefits. The elders and the group went to the local administration. The result, the correspondent said, was that individuals were selected to address residents of villages and towns to explain why there was no longer any need for the government to provide free gas, electricity, and water.