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Queuing For Bread In Ashgabat: Turkmenistan Faces Fresh Food Shortages

Residents of the eastern city of Turkmenabat, pictured in October 2018, waiting to buy flour in front of a state store.
Residents of the eastern city of Turkmenabat, pictured in October 2018, waiting to buy flour in front of a state store.

In Turkmenistan, a good day means a state store in your area is stocked with meat, or you finally get your hands on a 50-kilogram sack of subsidized flour, your family’s monthly allowance.

Flour, rice, and other staples are becoming increasingly scarce in Turkmenistan’s state-run stores that offer basic food products at relatively stable and affordable prices.

In the tightly controlled Central Asian nation, many depend on subsidized food to survive, as ordinary people have seen little benefit from the revenues of the county’s vast energy resources.

In the southeastern province of Mary, residents said they have been waiting for weeks to buy subsidized flour. State stores receive limited supplies that don’t meet demand despite a strict rationing system, they explained.

The situation is especially dire in villages, reported an RFE/RL correspondent in Mary who traveled this week to the settlements of Zarpchi, Taze Oba, Gyzyl Baydak, and 50-Yyllyk.

Many villagers told our correspondent they had been informed by their local stores that their turn to receive flour is expected to come in October. Fearing retaliation in the authoritarian state, no one was willing to speak on the record.

Food items are available in bazaars and private shops, but they are usually two to six times more expensive depending on the product, people in Mary told our correspondent.

State stores sell flour at a relatively affordable price that is the equivalent of 30 cents per kilogram, while it costs the equivalent of $1.40 to $1.70 a kilogram in bazaars.

Rationing amounts vary by region. In some areas, local authorities limit the sale of flour to 3 to 5 kilograms per person monthly, or in some cases, a 50-kilogram sack of flour per household.

Food shortages and price hikes in Turkmenistan first appeared in late 2016, although authorities have never publicly acknowledged or addressed them.

Now many ordinary people say the situation has worsened in the past three months.

In the eastern province of Lebap, several people told a local RFE/RL reporter that they haven’t received their monthly allowance of 3 kilograms of flour and a bread loaf since July.

A Turkmen correspondent for RFE/RL in Lebap traveled to the province’s Darganata, Carjew, and Koytendag districts, where shopkeepers at state stores said flour sells out within an hour and many customers go home empty-handed.

Queues Are Fact Of Life

Government stores in Turkmenistan rarely sell subsidized meat. When there is meat on offer, it’s usually chicken legs with rationing of two pieces per person. It’s sold on a first come, first served basis.

Standing in long lines for cheap food has become a part of daily life in Turkmenistan, where people have factored it in when planning their day.

Local stores make no announcements in advance about what is being delivered and when.

According to an RFE/RL correspondent in the capital, Ashgabat, rumors of an imminent delivery of key staple items -- such as cooking oil, rice, or sugar -- can prompt people to queue for hours, often in vain.

A list of food prices outside a store in Ashgabat.
A list of food prices outside a store in Ashgabat.

It’s not uncommon to see elderly people waiting near stores all day, so they can inform their family if new stock is delivered.

One Ashgabat resident described how he starts his day by making sure to “reserve” a place in line.

“This morning at 7 o’clock me and my wife reserved two spots in two different lines for sugar and rice at the shop. The store opens at 8 a.m., but there were already about 50 people who came before us. By 8 o’clock, there were more than 100 people,” the man said.

“We thought our turn would come by 9.30, but the shopkeepers said they aren’t selling the sugar and rice today. We left but later in the day we heard that the shop is selling sugar after all. We rushed back to the shop and waited for some 45 minutes. My wife bought a kilogram of sugar, but when my turn came the shopkeeper said the sugar was gone,” he added.

Independent media reported that an elderly man died in a queue for bread at a state store in the city of Bayramaly on March 27.

Citing eyewitnesses, Hronika Turkmenistana reported that the man was apparently crushed when the crowd rushed the store when it opened its doors.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service has repeatedly tried to contact Turkmen authorities for comment on the food shortages, but officials in the secretive state are reluctant to talk to media.

In a rare comment to RFE/RL, an official at the Turkmen Ministry of Trade and Foreign Economic Relations said on September 17 that providing food for people remains a top priority of the government. The official refused to give his name.

Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service correspondents in Ashgabat, Mary, and Lebap provinces
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

    RFE/RL's Turkmen Service is the only international Turkmen-language media reporting independently on political, economic, cultural, and security issues from inside one of the the world’s most reclusive countries.