Prague, 8 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It was just a few days ago that Turkmen officials were celebrating another record grain harvest.
At last month’s annual session of the Halk Maslahaty or People’s Assembly, Muratberdy Sopiev, the chairman of the farmers’ union, said bread shortages would never again be a problem in Turkmenistan. "The celebration table is covered with bread. Most importantly, bread is available at affordable prices and various products from flour are offered to the public in a wide variety," he said. "Shortages of bread are a thing of the past."
Sopiev’s remarks came after reports that this year’s harvest produced 3 million tons of grain -- easily enough for the nation’s 4.5 million people. That allegedly record harvest followed a major push by President Niyazov for farmers to produce more grain and other crops in hopes of beginning an export trade.
But the reality on the ground sharply contrasts with the upbeat rhetoric, at least according to accounts gathered from around the country.
"In the cities and villages the situation is getting more complicated daily," Aman Dauletov, an RFE/RL correspondent in Turkmenistan, said about the flour situation in southeastern Mary and Lebap, the top two grain-producing provinces. "The rise in the price of flour is worrying the people and worse, one can’t get flour for money and this is frightening the people. In cities and villages people can’t find anyone selling flour."
In the western Balkanabad province, a mostly desert land, the situation is even worse, as RFE/RL correspondent Shahmurat Akuyli reported: "At the Jenet market in Nebit Dag [now officially called Balkanabad], there is Kazakh flour [for sale]. A [50-kilogram] bag of flour costs 650,000 manats [$125 at the official exchange rate], a kilogram costs 13,000 manats [$2.5]. For the average person this is too much."
Dauletov said the shortage has forced some people to drastic measures. "And if you want to get it [flour] illegally, you go to a flour seller secretly and instead of buying a [marked] bag of flour, you get a plain suitcase with flour [inside]," he said.
Many analysts question the economic figures the Turkmen government releases. For example, Niyazov hjas said this year the country’s gross domestic product has risen by an amazing 20 percent. No independent verification of such figures has been available for the more than a decade.
Tales of flour shortages only confirm what many outsiders believed anyway -- that is, that there really has not been much economic growth in the country.
Aleksandr Dodonov was once a deputy prime minister in Turkmenistan and a minister of water resources. Now part of Turkmenistan’s opposition in exile, he expresses little surprise at the current grain situation. "The first reason is the counting process. There simply is not the grain that people are reporting about to Niyazov," he said. "The second reason is that the grain they are collecting is of a low quality and practically unsuitable for food products for people. It is useful only as feed for herds."
One would think that sooner or later someone must tell the country’s leader about the shortage and recommend importing grain. But Niyazov has a history of dealing harshly with officials who fail to meet his expectations. Beyond being fired, many such officials end up in prison.
Dodonov said such fears may prevent officials from coming to Niyazov to explain the dire situation with this most basic and needed product. "Officials are afraid to inform Niyazov that there is no bread and no flour," he said.
Most troubling about this shortage is that it comes before winter has arrived. RFE/RL correspondent Dauletov says that in Lebap province, officials are telling people to plant winter wheat in their gardens, hoping at least to alleviate a shortage that will get worse with the coming weeks.
(Rozinazar Khoudaiberdiev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report)