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No Queues, No Problem? Turkmen Officials Eyeing End Of Two-Tier Food System

People line up outside a state grocery store to buy cooking oil in the Turkmen city of Mary in 2019.
People line up outside a state grocery store to buy cooking oil in the Turkmen city of Mary in 2019.

Earlier this month some 500 people -- newly elected parliamentarians, state officials, and ordinary citizens -- gathered at a government building in the city of Turkmenbashy to discuss a possible end to the rationing of subsidized food.

In Turkmenistan, these kinds of discussions are essentially a one-way street and the deeply authoritarian regime's way of promoting an unpopular decision to the population.

Among those attending the event was a school security guard who spoke out against the councilors' view that the rations made available at government-owned stores were no longer necessary due to "the increasing living standards of the population," RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported.

He was promptly manhandled out of the venue by a man RFE/RL's Turkmen service identified as an employee of the country's feared National Security Ministry.

Turkmenistan's two-tier system for buying food has been both a necessity and a headache for authorities ever since a sudden slump in global energy prices in 2014 that was compounded by the Russian energy giant Gazprom's withdrawal from the Turkmen market.

While state propaganda continued to trumpet notes of alleged economic success, the government had by the start of 2015 devalued its manat currency by just under 20 percent, from 2.85 to 3.5 manats to the dollar.

Residents of the eastern city of Turkmenabat wait to buy flour from state shops.
Residents of the eastern city of Turkmenabat wait to buy flour from state shops.

The population's access to hard currency dried up, and a black market for dollars grew up alongside the fictitious official rate, with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service correspondents in 2021 reporting a black market rate of 40 manats to the dollar -- a nadir for the currency.

State and private food stores had long existed side by side in Turkmenistan, but it wasn't until this protracted and ongoing economic crisis that their respective prices for staples began to massively diverge.

"The cheap prices for selected food in the state stores [were] a way that the government could kind of pretend that the black market did not exist and that life in the country was still affordable with the wages people were earning," explained Ruslan Tuhbatullin, editor in chief at Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a Vienna-based website focused on the closed country.

"The words 'subsidized food' imply the government is assisting the people in a time of crisis. But the crisis is of the government's own making, and what really matters to it is the image of the state," Tuhbatullin said.

The chasm between the two produced a new and embarrassing problem -- food lines -- that the regime of "National Leader" Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and his son and presidential successor, Serdar, have been trying to solve ever since.

No More Freebies

The April 12 meeting in Turkmenbashy's state culture house was one of many being held in the western Balkan Province on the same topic in the first half of the month, according to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service.

It was not immediately clear if similar meetings were being held in other provinces, and the central government has made no official announcements.

But the state's attempt to wean an economically desperate population off the most affordable foodstuffs has been an undeniable trend for more than a year, with residents of the capital, Ashgabat, complaining of not being able to buy goods in state stores for months now.

Last week, according to another report from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, residents of the town of Kaka in Ahal Province outside Ashgabat began protesting after the cost of loaves of low-quality bread (made with low-rate flour) in state stores more than doubled to reach 2 manats, or about 10 cents.

Turkmen women cook traditional loaves of bread.
Turkmen women cook traditional loaves of bread.

Refusing to accept the explanation that the cost of baking bread had risen, locals demanded receipts for the flour, an RFE/RL correspondent said.

By the end of the week the stores were selling the loaves at their former price.

Last year, home deliveries of packages of cheap food were curtailed. The option of home delivery had helped ease the lengthy and sometimes restive queues outside state shops, but it failed to relieve tensions between consumers and shop managers, who were now responsible for delivery orders.

"I wish this circus would end," an RFE/RL correspondent quoted one manager as saying in July 2021. He said he was frustrated with his new role, in which he bore the brunt of complaints about shortages of foodstuffs in the rations.

Since 2021, authorities have been reducing the quantity of goods available as part of subsidized allowances, as well as the number of people eligible for them.

In the time since Serdar Berdymukhammedov took office last year -- his father is still regarded as Turkmenistan's ultimate decision maker -- the gulf between the cost of the state store staples and alternatives at private shops has narrowed considerably.

Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhammedov in front of a portrait of his father, Gurbanguly. (file photo)
Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhammedov in front of a portrait of his father, Gurbanguly. (file photo)

It seems unlikely this is merely a result of the recovery of the manat, which is currently hovering around 20 to the dollar on the black market.

Instead, says Tuhbatullin, the government appears to be allowing prices to rise, with the younger Berdymukhammedov speaking approvingly of the "modernization, diversification, and liberalization of the economy" when a minister briefed him on modifications of state price controls during a government meeting reported on by the state-controlled media in August.

"The formulations that [officials] use are rarely precise, but reading between the lines, it was apparent that they intended to cut back the subsidies," noted the journalist, whose sources in the eastern Lebap Province say state shops are now only providing flour and salt "more or less regularly" as part of subsidy packages.

A Population Looks Abroad

Parliamentarians at the meeting in Turkmenbashy expressed confidence in the population's ability to survive without subsidized food, RFE/RL correspondents heard.

The officials argued that minimum private-sector salaries were between 3,000 and 6,000 manats per month ($150 and $300 in real terms) and that pensions and state payments were subject to annual increases of 10 percent.

They also pointed to the low cost of electricity, water, and gas.

As of January 1, Turkmenistan's minimum wage was set at 1,160 manats (closer to $60 in real terms) and far from all private-sector workers earn the sums mentioned at the gathering.

Staged meetings with the population have become a noted element of regime strategy under the Berdymukhammedovs, who came to power in 2006 following the death of autocratic first President Saparmurat Niyazov.

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov sought a similar show of popular approval in 2018 ahead of a decision to introduce a fee-based structure for household utilities that Niyazov had previously granted free for all Turkmen.

More recently, Serdar Berdymukhammedov announced public consultations over what to call a brand-new city that officials quoted in a report by AFP said will absorb investments of up to $5 billion.

It has since been announced the city will be called Arkadag, or "Protector," the preferred moniker of Serdar's 65-year-old father, who remains the star of state-controlled news broadcasts.

RFE/RL correspondents found no evidence that the consultations Serdar Berdymukhammedov called for had taken place.

The figures cited for the "smart city" Arkadag -- dwarfing an earlier stated figure of $1.5 billion -- indicate that Ashgabat once more has money to burn, even if the general population does not.

The closing ceremony of the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Ashgabat, held in 2017. Turkmenistan's economic situation worsened after the government spent billions hosting the relatively obscure sporting event.
The closing ceremony of the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Ashgabat, held in 2017. Turkmenistan's economic situation worsened after the government spent billions hosting the relatively obscure sporting event.

Prices for hydrocarbons are relatively high again and the government claims to have repaid the debt on a gas pipeline that carries the vast bulk of Turkmenistan's exports east to China.

Russia has also begun buying again.

But there are few signs of a healthy economy developing on the ground and, instead, growing indicators of a completely disenfranchised population voting with its feet.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service is one of the few media outlets to regularly report on events in Turkmenistan's provinces, where poverty is the deepest. Tuhbatullin's Chronicles website and the Netherlands-based Turkmen.News website are two others.

Ruslan Myatiev, who edits Turkmen.News, told RFE/RL that the photos of Turkmen lining up at state shops published by independent media in recent years have been a serious affront to the Berdymukhammedovs, strengthening the regime's determination to end the phenomenon.

But Myatiev argued that the government will continue to spend "tens and maybe hundreds of millions of dollars" regulating food prices in some form, and cited his outlet's recent report from the depressed province of Dashoguz as evidence that local people have no capacity to absorb a shift to market-based prices.

According to the report published on April 21, as many as 200 policemen have filed requests to resign at that northern region's police headquarters, many of whom have cited a desire to find work abroad as the reason for quitting.

"In terms of state employees, police are relatively powerful; they have opportunities to earn additional income. But even these citizens prefer to find taxi work in Russia because they simply cannot make ends meet," Myatiev said.

"We hear similar stories about employees in the health and education sectors," he added.

Written by Chris Rickleton based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service
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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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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.

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