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Desperate Times: Turkmen Turn To Uzbekistan To Stem Major Cash Shortage

Hundreds of people wait in line to get visa at the Uzbek Embassy in Ashgabat.

Hundreds of people line up behind the gate of the Uzbek Embassy in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, at the crack of dawn each morning in the hope of getting a visa to Uzbekistan -- though only a few of them are tourists or want to visit friends or relatives.

Their main reason for wanting to travel to their northern neighbor is to get hard currency.

A severe cash shortage in Turkmenistan has forced thousands of people in the tightly controlled Central Asian state to go to Uzbekistan to withdraw money from automated teller machines (ATMs) there. reported that the majority of those waiting in line at the Uzbek Embassy say they are traveling to the nearest cities in Uzbekistan just to get some cash.

Money has become increasingly scarce in tightly controlled Turkmenistan, where the majority of its nearly 6 million people face extreme financial hardships, despite the country's abundant energy resources.

People wait to withdraw cash from an ATM machine in Ashgabat.
People wait to withdraw cash from an ATM machine in Ashgabat.

Ironically, the cash deficit has also created a new source of employment for some Turkmen, who have become black-market intermediaries delivering cash to people for a fee.

One Ashgabat resident told that he usually gets a 20-day multientry visa to Uzbekistan. The man, who gave only his first name, Shirberdy, said that like many others he takes his debit card and those of several other people when he goes to Uzbekistan so that he can bring back more cash. The cardholders even give him their PIN codes.

Shirberdy said he provided the service in exchange for a small fee of 100 manats ($28.6 at the official rate, but about $5 at the black-market rate). This means of making money is the only source of income for Shirberdy, who is unemployed in a country where the percentage of those who are out of work has been estimated to be above 50 percent.

During the 20 days his visa is valid, Shirberdy travels to Uzbekistan about five times, he said. He said he personally knew dozens of others who make their living delivering cash from Uzbekistan.

"What else can we do?" he asked. "There are no normal jobs in Ashgabat and the jobs that are available pay less than 700 manats ($200 at the official rate) a month," Shirberdy said.

Chasing Manats

Turkmenistan pays all salaries, pensions, and student stipends via bank cards only, but ATM machines often run out of banknotes.

The cash shortage is especially dire in rural areas, where local RFE/RL correspondents say people stand in long lines at ATMs for hours to try to get money before it runs out.

On November 4, RFE/RL correspondents in Mary Province reported that people's salaries had been sent to their bank accounts, but the ATMs were empty and they were unable to get any money.

"Some 40 people were waiting in a queue today at an ATM at the Belent shopping center, but there are no banknotes in it. People are inserting their debit cards, looking at their balance, and trying to withdraw at least 20 manats, but the machines have no money," our correspondent reported from the provincial capital, Mary.

Some people in Mary and Lebap Province said they had even waited days to get cash.

People queue up in front of a state grocery store to buy cooking oil in Mary.
People queue up in front of a state grocery store to buy cooking oil in Mary.

In late August, police in Lebap detained several people standing in such lines. They were released after being warned not to stand in lines at cash dispensers, RFE/RL correspondents reported.

Some Lebap residents then turn to unofficial intermediaries to deliver cash to them from Ashgabat, where the ATMs are usually better supplied than in the provinces.

Many of the black-market money changers charge a 10 percent fee for their service, RFE/RL correspondents said, citing local residents.

'Technical Issue'

In a rare statement on August 19, authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov mentioned the cash shortage at ATMs but didn't acknowledge the country's greater economic problems, which have caused such problems.

Berdymukhammedov and his government control all facets of life in Turkmenistan, and have complete command of the economy. But the president -- who has ruled despotically since 2006 -- called the ATM problem a "technical issue" and reprimanded Central Bank chief Merdan Annadurdyev for what he called "weak control over ATM operations."

WATCH: Berdymukhammedov's antics have recently been the butt of jokes by Western comedians. But the daily realities in the country are grim -- and unlikely to change.

Think Turkmenistan Is Funny? Think Again
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According to figures provided by Uzbekistan's State Statistics Committee, 233,400 Turkmen citizens visited Uzbekistan in the first six months of 2019. The real number of visitors from Turkmenistan is thought to be much higher.

While people travel for various reasons, many Turkmen say that visiting Uzbekistan for cash is a common occurrence for people living in Turkmenistan.

The largely desert Central Asian country also struggles with a shortage of staple foods in state shops, which provide foodstuffs at affordable prices but are often empty or closed. Even bread is often rationed.

The Turkmen government's revenues have declined dramatically in the past decade due to unsuccessful energy deals with various countries as well as the fall in the global price for natural gas, the country's main export commodity.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service
  • 16x9 Image

    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.

  • 16x9 Image

    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.