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The Ashgabat Bootleggers


A ban on alcohol ahead of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games saw strong drink disappear quickly from the shelves of stores around Ashgabat at the end of August. (file photo)

It's dry county in Ashgabat these days after authorities banned the sale of alcohol in the run-up to the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games that Turkmenistan (AIMAG) is hosting later this month.

At the end of August, in the space of a few short hours, strong drink disappeared from the shelves of stores around the Turkmen capital.

But, as has been seen so often when authorities attempt to impose forced temperance, where there is a thirst, there is a way.

And this recent example in Turkmenistan is no exception.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, has been speaking with Ashgabat residents and it seems alcohol has moved off the shelves and onto wheels.

Let's get this formality out of the way before we get into the topic.

Home Deliveries

Everyone who spoke with Azatlyk did so under condition of anonymity because: one, the Turkmen government doesn't want its citizens talking with us; and two, these people are technically breaking the prohibition law.

"Right after the prohibition on selling alcohol, some people sold wine quietly from their homes," one man told Azatlyk, "but now owners of stores [that sold spirits] have given their trusted clients special telephone numbers."

One phone call and "after a little while a car comes to deliver vodka to the given address."

Of course, the price is more than double what it cost when it was legal.

A bottle of "Serdar" vodka would set you back seven or eight Turkmen manats, about $2, a month ago, but that same bottle now costs up to 20 manats.

Ironically, "Serdar" (Leader) vodka has a picture of Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, on the label.

It's a strange fate that it now must be smuggled around town out of sight of the second president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

Dubious Concoctions

Booze delivery is the ideal means to circumvent the ban, but as has also often been true in the past, there are some who take matters into their own hands and resort to homemade liquor.

The dangers in this are well documented. You never know exactly what you're getting when you deal with "samogon" or "moonshine" or whatever you call it.

And Azatlyk has heard stories of people ending up in the hospital after imbibing some dubious concoction, but no one wanted to talk much about that.

The intention of the ban on sales of alcohol seems clear enough: the authorities are concerned about the country's image when foreigners start arriving to compete in, or attend, AIMAG.

But what the prohibition on alcohol sales has done immediately is to create a new black market business.

It is likely a temporary inconvenience for the supporters of Bacchus in Ashgabat since many of the restrictions being imposed in the Turkmen capital, including the ban on sales of alcohol, will be rescinded once AIMAG is over.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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