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Impoverished Turkmen Selling Jewelry, Cars To Buy Food

Women sell jewelry at a night market in Mary Province's Bayramaly district.
Women sell jewelry at a night market in Mary Province's Bayramaly district.

BYRAMALY, Turkmenistan -- Desperate to buy food and medicine, some residents of eastern Turkmenistan have resorted to selling their cars, jewelry, livestock, and household items to survive.

"We have no money left to feed our children or buy medicine for our elderly parents," a resident of the city of Bayramaly told RFE/RL on May 20 on condition of anonymity.

"The authorities are not helping us rebuild our homes after the recent storms," he added, referring to recent torrential rain and windstorms that ravaged parts of eastern Turkmenistan in late April and early May. "We have to pay from our own pockets to rebuild the badly damaged, crumbling walls and roofs [of our homes and businesses]."

Mary and the neighboring Lebap region were hit the hardest by the storms, which first struck on April 27. At least four people were reportedly killed -- some reports say a few dozen -- and many others injured in the storms.

The storms damaged many houses and left large areas without water and electricity for several weeks, adding to people's ongoing financial hardship.

Turkmenistan's secretive, authoritative government -- which controls all media in the country -- has not mentioned the problems caused by the adverse weather and several people who shot videos of the damaged buildings have been detained.

The storms came as Turkmenistan faces nearly five years of a severe economic crisis that has resulted in shortages of basic goods, massive unemployment, and spiraling inflation. The distant provinces in the country of some 5 million people have been hit particularly hard with food shortages and price hikes.

There is also a severe shortage of cash in Mary and other rural areas, where many shops and bazaars don't accept card payments.

People wait to withdraw cash from ATM machines in Ashgabat.
People wait to withdraw cash from ATM machines in Ashgabat.

Salaries, pensions, and disability benefits are transferred to people's bank accounts, but there is often no cash in banks and ATM machines for people to gain access to their money.

The situation results in long lines at state-owned food stores that accept cards and offer staples at subsidized prices. But supplies are rationed in the state stores and amounts on offer are limited.

Left with no other way to feed their families, many of those selling household items, cars, jewelry, or livestock are asking low prices out of desperation to get cash, RFE/RL correspondents and sources in Mary report.

"For example, in the bazaars of Mary you can buy a cow and its calf for a total of 5,400 manats ($1,540) on average. In the current situation, however, people are selling them for 4,000 [manats or $1,140]," a correspondent reported.

"Sometimes they have to settle for an even cheaper price" in order to make a sale.

An animal market in Mary Province
An animal market in Mary Province

Officials in Mary, meanwhile, have created additional problems for those selling their vehicles to buy food and pay household bills, which officials say should be paid in time despite the impact of the storms.

Citing several residents, an RFE/RL correspondent in Mary said people were unable to sell their cars if they were not white. Authorities are simply refusing to register any nonwhite vehicle for a new owner.

Car owners are therefore being forced to repaint their vehicles before selling them, the correspondent said.

Others try to agree with the buyer that they will paint the car white before registering the sale. In return, the seller of the car must offer a reduced price, the correspondent reported.

Turkmenistan introduced an informal ban on black cars in the capital, Ashgabat, in 2018. People across the country were encouraged to only buy white vehicles.

Turkmenistan's imperious president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, is known for his obsession with the color white, which has led to the construction of many white, marble-clad buildings and statues in Ashgabat.

Similar hardships for residents have been reported in Lebap Province, where people also received no support from the government to rebuild their homes damaged by the windstorms and severe rain.

The situation prompted an extremely rare protest in Lebap's provincial capital, Turkmenabat, on May 14.

Several hundred people gathered in front of a district government office demanding that the authorities restore water and electricity to those who still didn't have it and to help residents repair their homes and clear away debris.

Such rallies are extremely unusual in Turkmenistan, where the government doesn't tolerate criticism or public protests.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service
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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.

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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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