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Turkmen Inaction Worsening Food Crisis Amid Pandemic, Rights Groups Warn

State media strives to paint a rosy picture of living standards, claiming that Turkmenistan is living in an "era of greatness and happiness."
State media strives to paint a rosy picture of living standards, claiming that Turkmenistan is living in an "era of greatness and happiness."

The Turkmen government’s inaction in response to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically worsened the country’s preexisting food crisis, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the exile group Turkmenistan Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) said.

The tightly controlled Central Asian nation has been facing price hikes and a shortage of subsidized food since 2016.

The Turkmen government -- one of the most repressive in the world -- denies the existence of poverty in the country and has failed to provide relief to economically vulnerable groups, even as unemployment has skyrocketed during the pandemic, HRW and TIHR said in a report on September 23.

Titled Turkmenistan: Denial, Inaction Worsen Food Crisis, the report says that in the absence of a strategy to provide economic or social assistance to its people, the government is failing to meet its international obligations to ensure an adequate standard of living and the right to food.

“With no effort to identify and assist the people most in need at this critical moment, Turkmenistan is callously neglecting the most basic norms of human rights, which include the right to food,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at HRW.

Ordinary people describe in the report their plight amid the food shortages, price hikes, and poverty.

“Compared to a year ago, our family eats less,” a Turkmen father of eight told TIHR in July 2020. “That’s because we have less money, and [food] prices have gone up. We’ve had problems getting food due to the lines and the shortages.”

A Turkmen student told HRW in November 2019 that his family was spending 70 to 80 percent of their income on food. A Turkmen pensioner said her family was spending almost all their income on food.

The government’s only assistance program provides subsidized food in so-called state shops, an affordable alternative to privately owned shops selling food at market prices.

But supplies began to falter in 2015-16, after the global decline in oil prices started to hit the energy-rich nation’s state budget. Declining income from energy exports since 2014 and several poor harvests have constrained Turkmenistan’s food supplies.

“Our mother is the one who waits in lines at the state stores,” said Sapar, a father of eight. “She gets up every day between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. and goes to stand in line.… Someone else may come to relieve her closer to the time the store opens. Lines may be three to four hours long until it’s your turn.”

State media do not report on the shortages. Instead, it strives to paint a rosy picture of living standards, claiming that the country is living in an “era of greatness and happiness” and frequently showing fully stocked, orderly shops.

Turkmenistan’s domestic food production only meets around 40 percent of national demand. The rest is imported, with 80 percent of the imported foodstuff coming from neighboring Iran.

In early 2020, the supply of subsidized food began to falter to an even greater degree, in part because of the border closure with Iran due to the pandemic. Some imported food products, such as potatoes from Iran, disappeared entirely, the report said.

In the past 12 months, the market price of flour rose by 50 percent and cooking oil by 130 percent, it said.

At the same time, the global economic downturn threw many Turkmen out of work and slashed the remittances upon which many Turkmen families survive, and Covid-19 travel restrictions prevented people from traveling abroad for work.

As a result, people in Turkmenistan faced even more uncertain, demeaning, and sometimes insurmountable obstacles to obtaining adequate food, the report said.

It called on the government to take immediate measures to make sure that people can get adequate food. The government should also commission an independent, nationwide household survey to assess poverty and food security, make the data public, and use the information to ensure effective, affordable access to adequate, nutritious food for all members of society, the rights groups said.

Beside the state stores, the government should consider other ways to protect people from food insecurity, TIHR and HRW said. These include food-voucher programs that allow people to purchase goods at private shops or the bazaar, or cash-transfer programs to people with incomes below the minimum subsistence level for an adequate standard of living.

The report said that Turkmen authorities should also reassess the contribution that currency controls -- limiting the ability to buy or sell foreign currency -- have on the rising prices of imported foods and the capacity to purchase food, and make appropriate changes to help ensure availability of and access to affordable food.

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