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Hunger And Eviction: Money Woes Send Turkmen Students Abroad Scrambling


Turkmen banks are causing big problems for students abroad as they can't access their bank accounts. (illustrative photo)

A Russian ATM machine's repeated rejection of his efforts to withdraw cash from his Turkmen bank led one student to cut up his bank card and try to cook it for a meal.

Video of the culinary first (he did add salt) that was sent to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service was a humorous attempt to express the utter frustration felt by many of the thousands of Turkmen students studying around the world who are unable to get money from their bank accounts back home.

But the problem is no laughing matter. It's left many students unable to pay rent or tuition, and some of those who spoke to RFE/RL this month said they were often even going hungry because they had no money.

"In December I was still pretty well fed, but then the [bank] cards stopped working and, as a result, I've lost 15 kilograms," said Merdan, a Turkmen studying in Ukraine who asked that we not publish his surname.

"Very often we do not have money -- I have to borrow from friends and acquaintances," he added. "We all understand each other's situations. Sometimes I ask for a slice of bread -- but they also need to eat. And besides, a hungry person will not be satisfied with a couple of slices of bread."

WATCH: Student 'Cooks' His Bank Card (in Turkmen, no subtitles)

Turkmen Student 'Cooks' His Bank Card
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Turkmen debit-cardholders living abroad were previously limited to taking out the equivalent of $15 per day, but that amount became insignificant once virtually any attempt to extract money -- whether at ATMs in Turkey, Belarus, Ukraine, or Russia, among others -- ended in failure.

"When I went abroad, I could not use my bank card, even though I had about 4,000 manats in my account," said a student named Gulrukh, citing the equivalent of around $1,143 at the official exchange rate. "When I went to Vnesheconombank, they told me that my card was blocked."

Many students in a number of countries told RFE/RL that occasionally their card would inexplicably work and they could retrieve $15 but those were unreliable exceptions.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service has received dozens of messages and phone calls each day in recent months from Turkmen abroad complaining about the debit-card problem.

No Official Announcements

The cards, issued by various state-owned Turkmen banks, are most often embossed with the VISA logo, the complainants said, but others that have failed are MasterCard.

Banks in Turkmenistan have given no official indication as to why the debit cards often don't work. (illustrative photo)
Banks in Turkmenistan have given no official indication as to why the debit cards often don't work. (illustrative photo)

VISA told RFE/RL in a March statement that it had not cut off any services to owners of its cards in Turkmenistan.

"In the Republic of Turkmenistan, VISA continues to process and provide services to all partner banks as usual, we have not suspended the provision of services to banks in Turkmenistan and are working closely with banks with partners, trade and service companies and other market participants to ensure the stable operation of the payment system as a whole," Galym Tabyldiev, VISA's general manager for Central Asia, wrote.

VISA said anyone experiencing difficulty using the cards should "contact the issuing bank."

Banks in Turkmenistan have made no official announcements on the reason for the failure of the debit cards to work reliably, although some bank representatives, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL that VISA cards used abroad were being "completely suspended." The officials -- from Bank Senagat and the Vnesheconombank -- added that they did not know how long any purported suspension might last.

Chaotic Scenes

The dire situation has forced some parents with children studying abroad to rely on MoneyGram and Western Union to wire money to their loved ones.

But such transfers from Turkmenistan were limited to $300 and unusual conditions were placed on senders that included visiting certain central-bank offices to get a "service coupon."

The migration to money-wiring services led to chaotic scenes at some of the few MoneyGram and Western Union outlets in Turkmenistan, with crushes as lines sometimes ballooned into the hundreds, as in the Lebap region in February.

It's not clear why the banks might be blocking such withdrawal requests from abroad.

Some analysts speculate that it might be connected to the gap between the official exchange rate (3.5 manats to the dollar) and the black-market rate (22 manats to the dollar). They say paying out money at the official rate could expose banks to significant losses.

Others point to Turkmenistan's dire economic situation, which has caused shortages of many staple and consumer goods, including bread and sugar.

Ashgabat residents queue for food earlier this month.
Ashgabat residents queue for food earlier this month.

Those woes appear to extend to the government's coffers as well, as the state has reportedly fallen behind on some workers' salaries and pensions.

There have also been government efforts to encourage the return of Turkmen migrant workers and students abroad by pressuring parents and other relatives. In such circumstances, cutting access to money for Turkmen abroad could make the decision to return home much easier.

Regardless of the reason for the cash cutoffs, they continue to cause big problems for Turkmen abroad.

"I would like to make a big request of officials in Turkmenistan," wrote one student to RFE/RL. "Unlock our cards. We are in a foreign country, we do not have our own housing, we live in a hostel, we cannot even pay for it. We soon will be evicted. We cannot leave for Turkmenistan because we will not be released if we do not pay debts for the hostel."

Expulsions, Manual Labor

There have already been cases of Turkmen students being expelled from their university over unpaid tuition.

"We paid for our studies on February 20 by transferring money from banks in Turkmenistan, but the Turkmen banks have not yet transferred money to the university account in Belarus, and the university demanded that the money be transferred by April 1," one university student told RFE/RL in April.

He claimed that 42 students from Turkmenistan who had similar problems with their home banks had already been expelled for nonpayment of their tuition.

Hundreds of Turkmen students in southern Russia have reportedly taken to doing farm work in a bid to make ends meet. (illustrative photo)
Hundreds of Turkmen students in southern Russia have reportedly taken to doing farm work in a bid to make ends meet. (illustrative photo)

Other students have taken to doing manual labor to pay the bills, potentially risking legal problems.

An RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent in Russia's Astrakhan region reported on May 15 that hundreds of Turkmen students were working on farms in their spare time harvesting fruits and vegetables.

He reported that some were working eight hours a day for 600 rubles (about $10) planting crops on the weekends.

"Students are forced to agree [to the low wage] because they have no choice," he said.

The activity is technically illegal because in Russia workers need to have a work permit, which costs 3,200 rubles per month (about $50), and most students do not have one.

"Because of the crisis in Turkmenistan, we are trying not to disturb our parents and relatives, we try to take care of ourselves somehow, pay at least part of our expenses," said one student in Astrakhan. "We do not know when the situation in [Turkmenistan] will stabilize, because we still cannot withdraw money from our VISA cards because of the blockage."

He added: "Many of us are in despair."

And the debit-card problem has hit more than just Turkmen students.

A Turkmen official who requested anonymity told RFE/RL that, while part of a high-level government delegation in Europe earlier this year for a meeting with a prominent international organization, he was unable to withdraw the money he needed from an ATM machine to pay his hotel bill.

Written by Pete Baumgartner based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service
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