It seems that desperate times call for desperate measures in northern Turkmenistan, where authorities are reported to be considering the confiscation of "surplus" flour from people amid severe shortages of the staple.
Residents in the Dashoguz Province have told RFE/RL that officials told villagers they might conduct raids on people’s homes and seize flour from households that authorities deem have more flour than they require.
“They are apparently considering checking the homes of the relatively well-to-do people to…confiscate the amount of flour which officials consider exceeds the needs of the family members for a certain period of time,” said a resident of Dashoguz’s Ruhybelent district on February 12.
Fearing retaliation for speaking out against the government in the repressive country, the villager spoke on condition of anonymity.
According to the villager, a special commission has been set up to conduct checks on people’s homes and local residents have been informed about the possibility of flour being confiscated.
Several other people who live in the district of Ruhybelent confirmed the first villager’s account of the officials' warning about checks.
It’s not clear, however, when or even if the raids will be carried out.
Messages by RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service to government officials seeking comment went unanswered. Turkmen authorities usually refrain from speaking to independent or foreign media outlets and all domestic media is state-controlled.
In Dashoguz’s Boldumsaz and Keneurgench districts, officials recently raided the homes of several people suspected of privately selling flour to others, local residents told RFE/RL.
“Last week, officials warned people that criminal probes would be opened against those who sell flour in their homes,” a villager said.
The news of the planned raids in Dashoguz come as Turkmenistan is in the throes of a severe flour shortage that began in December. The lack of flour has caused prices for bread and other goods to spike.
The price of churek bread has risen from 1 manat ($0.29) to 1.40 manats at the beginning of winter.
The price for a similar type of bread that weighs some 500 grams increased from 1 manat to 1.50 manats in the western Balkan and south-central Mary provinces.
Flour has vanished from state-run food stores across the country, several people said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Dashoguz police are also trying to prevent people from forming lines at the food stores to wait for flour and bread, they told RFE/RL.
Police officers are telling people to leave phone numbers and go home and promise that the store will call them when the stocks arrive, residents say.
While antigovernment protests are extremely rare in the authoritarian state, sources tell RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service that people are gathering near local government offices to complain to authorities about the flour shortage.
Amid people’s growing discontent, authorities -- along with religious leaders and community elders -- are conducting talks with people, the sources said.
The flour scarcity has prompted many Dashoguz residents to buy it from neighboring Uzbekistan.
“They have started bringing flour from the other side of the border because many people have nothing to eat at home. They don’t have bread,” one man said.
In neighboring Lebap Province, flour has recently become twice as expensive as it is in the provincial capital, Turkmenabat, local people said.
In Turkmenabat, a 50-kilogram sack of flour costs between $23 and $29, while in the Lebap Province towns of Kerkichi and Magdanly, the same amount of the staple costs up to $57, they said. In the city of Kerki, a sack of flour costs $34.
Along the highways leading to and from Turkmenabat and Kerki, police have been stopping private vehicles carrying the cheaper flour from the two bigger cities to their homes in other parts of Lebap Province.
Police officers demand up to a $7 bribe for each sack of flour found in the vehicles, a Lebap resident told RFE/RL.
“The officers threaten to confiscate the goods if someone refuses to pay the money,” he said, adding that those who don’t want to pay are being taken to police stations to face an official fine for “violation of public order” and refusing to obey a police officer.
There have also been reports of flour shortfalls in the Mary and southern Ahal provinces since late 2017.
The scarcity of flour in Turkmenistan adds to the growing food prices and shortages of basic foods, a major problem facing the country over the past two years.
Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service