TURKMENABAT, Turkmenistan -- As daily temperatures creep below freezing with the onset of winter, authorities in eastern Turkmenistan have warned families that they risk losing access to subsidized food if they don't catch up on their utilities payments.
The verbal warnings were issued to households in Lebap province in early December as the government launched a campaign to help state-run utilities collect unpaid bills, according to dozens of local residents who spoke to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service.
“Authorities have given people in our region until the end of December to pay any debts they have in utility bills," said a resident of Darganata district. "But people can barely afford to buy bread, let alone pay for gas and electricity."
The man and others who spoke to RFE/RL requested anonymity, saying that authorities punish those who speak to independent media.
The outstanding debts are new to many Turkmen residents, as the former Soviet republic only ended government subsidies for gas, electricity, and drinking water a year ago.
They also threaten to compound the effects of food shortages and economic malaise amid a coronavirus pandemic that Turkmen officials, almost uniquely in the world, still insist hasn't caused any local infections.
Villagers complain that, while they understand the need to pay for the energy they consume, many families spend almost all of their income on food and simply don't have the resources to settle their debts.
Many rural residents struggle to earn income outside of seasonal farming work, making it harder to catch up with bills in the off-season.
Some rely on odd jobs they find in nearby cities or the remittances from family members working abroad in places like Turkey.
But travel to cities, especially the capital, Ashgabat, has been restricted to combat the COVID-19 threat that is officially raging everywhere except Turkmenistan. (World Health Organization and other international officials have unsuccessfully urged Turkmen officials to be more forthcoming with coronavirus statistics.)
Remittances have dried up, too, as nearby economies are hard-hit and supply chains interrupted by the ongoing pandemic.
RFE/RL correspondents in Lebap's Darganata and Farap districts were aware of at least 10 families who said they were unable to raise the money before the end-of-December deadline.
Turkmen saw electricity and gas meters first installed in their homes in 2018, when the government announced it was going to end decades of major subsidies for electricity, gas, and drinking water as of the following year.
Under a subsidies system introduced in 1993, every registered household member was entitled to 35 kilowatt-hours of electricity and 50 cubic meters of natural gas each month. The subsidies also included 250 liters of potable water per day per person.
Turkmenistan's economic woes caught up with it in 2014, after declining global fuel prices took a toll on the gas-rich Central Asian state's budget.
Many of its 6 million people have faced food price hikes and a shortage of foodstuffs for much of the past four years, although the authoritarian government in Ashgabat doesn't acknowledge the existence of such hardship.
The situation deteriorated further in 2020 after borders were closed and food imports were disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The retail price of flour has gone up by 50 percent and cooking oil by 130 percent in the past year.
It is unclear whether authorities plan to act on their verbal warnings to deny access to subsidized food for those who don't meet the deadline to settle their utility debts.
Doing so could leave thousands of residents in the rural communities that were targeted facing acute hunger in the middle of winter.
Many Turkmen buy staples including flour, bread, cooking oil, rice, sugar, and potatoes from state grocery shops where prices are sometimes one-sixth of what they are in private stores and bazaars.
But the choice of goods in state-owned shops has become increasingly sparse, and supplies arrive in limited amounts.
People often wait hours in long lines outside state stores that operate on a first come, first served basis. Many people go home empty-handed as limited supplies run out before their turn.
In November, Ashgabat residents told RFE/RL that people in some neighborhoods were standing in line overnight to be at the front of the line when state-run shops opened at 7:00 the following morning.
Food shortages have even sparked small public protests in Turkmenistan, where the government shows little tolerance for dissent and brutally clamps down on critics and opponents.
On November 10, dozens of people gathered near the Garagum district government building in Mary Province to complain of a shortage of flour in local state shops.
However, after a brief meeting with the crowd, district officials ordered the police to disperse the gathering. The authorities made no promise that they would try to resolve the problem.
It was the second such protest in Mary Province this year. About 30 women briefly blocked a highway on April 3 before gathering in front of the Mary region's government headquarters to protest food shortages.
That rally ended when authorities promised the protesters two kilograms of flour each.
Authorities haven't publicly announced any plans for tackling the long-running food crisis in Turkmenistan, which has never held an election deemed fair and competitive by Western observers.