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Turkmenistan Tightens Control Of Information As Economic Situation Worsens

 People buy bread in the eastern Turkmen city of Turkmenabat.
People buy bread in the eastern Turkmen city of Turkmenabat.

ASHGABAT -- For many ordinary residents of the capital of Turkmenistan, a new day starts by standing in a long line for subsidized bread at a state-owned grocery store.

The lines in Ashgabat and other cities across this mainly desert country can last for hours as the shops wait to get fresh supplies -- and sometimes shortages send people home empty-handed.

Brawls even occasionally break out between people trying to get their hands on the last loaf of bread or another affordable staple that is in short supply in the energy-rich country.

But the authoritarian government in Turkmenistan doesn't want the outside world to see these images of people struggling with poverty and economic hardship.

Ashgabat police are detaining people who use their smartphones while waiting in line, fearing they might take photos or videos to post on social media or send to someone abroad.

"Officers closely follow people who have mobile phones. If they even remotely suspect that someone is filming the queue, officers detain them and take them to the police station for questioning," an Ashgabat resident told RFE/RL on November 12.

The resident spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, as dissent in the tightly controlled state is not tolerated.

Images the government doesn't want to get out: People wait in line for subsidized food in Ashgabat.
Images the government doesn't want to get out: People wait in line for subsidized food in Ashgabat.

According to one police source, plainclothes police sometimes stand in line to make sure others don't take photos or videos.

Food shortages and price hikes that began about five years ago show no sign of abating as they push more people in the Central Asian country into poverty. But instead of working to fix the economy, the hard-line government in Ashgabat is only stepping up control on people's access to information.

The authorities are trying to contain the message coming out of Turkmenistan about people's hardships while also blocking any information coming from abroad that is critical of the Turkmen government.

In their bid to "hide" the problem and make the lines look smaller in case someone might record the scene, police in some districts allow only five to 10 people at a time to stand in a line behind the store, an Ashgabat resident said.

"The others are ordered to stay further away and to be unnoticeable," he said. "When the first group of people leave the shop then the officers let the other group go in."

Videos secretly filmed by RFE/RL correspondents in Ashgabat show dozens of local residents -- including women carrying young children -- gathering near government stores in the early morning.

People rush into the shops when they open at 5:30 a.m. in an attempt to get ahead of each other.

For many it is worth the effort: a loaf of subsidized bread costs between $0.30 and $0.60 according to the official exchange rate. The bread is about 10 times more expensive in bazaars and private bakeries.

The videos show customers leaving the shop carrying three loafs of bread each, the most allowed by a rationing system for government stores on a first come, first served basis.

Several residents told RFE/RL there are usually up to 100 people standing in line early in the mornings behind each government store selling other staples -- such as rice, chicken, and cooking oil -- at subsidized prices. But most of the affordable goods are in short supply and empty shelves are a common feature.

Citing regular customers, RFE/RL correspondents say daily bread supplies at most state grocery stores in Ashgabat are only enough for about 60 percent of the customers in line. The others leave with nothing, only to come back and wait again.

Don't Listen To Criticism

As the economic crisis worsens, Ashgabat has intensified a campaign against Turkmen activists abroad who talk about the economic woes in a country already plagued by widespread unemployment, corruption, and a lack of civil liberties.

In the province of Lebap, security services conducted meetings with residents to discuss what Ashgabat sees as anti-government propaganda by Turkmen activists and opposition members in exile.

Agricultural produce is put on display for Harvest Festival celebrations at an exhibition hall in Ashgabat on November 14.
Agricultural produce is put on display for Harvest Festival celebrations at an exhibition hall in Ashgabat on November 14.

One such meeting at the cultural center in the district of Farap on November 9 focused on the campaigns by eight political activists who hail from Lebap. Among those named in the meeting were Istanbul-based activist Dursoltan Taganova and France-based Murad Kurbanov, the leader of the opposition Democratic Choice of Turkmenistan movement.

"The meeting organizers -- from the security services and police -- told the gathering that they must not view these [activists'] videos on YouTube," said a Lebap resident who attended the meeting. "The officials said if the videos don't get many views the [activists] won't be able to make money on YouTube and they will then lose their source of income."

Several others at the Farap meeting said officials also urged people not to follow foreign media, including RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, which they called a U.S. propaganda tool. According to those participants at the meetings, security officials were particularly critical of the Turkmen Service's reports on the lines for subsidized bread.

Turkmenistan has already blocked many social media and independent news websites, though many Turkmen still reach them through virtual private networks. Turkmen officials have also in recent weeks slowed down the Internet speed across the country to further curb people's access to information.

State media, meanwhile, praised the country's "significant success" this year in harvesting agricultural products, including more than 1.4 million tons of wheat, ahead of national Harvest Day celebrations on November 14.

Written by Farangis Najibullah in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service correspondents in Ashgabat and Lebap
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    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.

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    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.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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