“You get there and the line is so long it can take three to five days. People sleep in front of the factory.”
That’s what a resident of Turkmenistan’s northern Dashoguz Province told RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk.
What was worth sleeping outside a factory for several days?
A 50-kilogram sack of flour.
Despite the glowing accounts Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and other officials give of the country’s economy, testimony from the ground paints an entirely different picture.
According to people who contacted Azatlyk, in Dashoguz Province, where some 1.2 million people living in nine districts, domestically produced flour is available only in the Gyorogly district. For some people, this means a 200-kilometer trek.
The official explanation for the flour shortage is the temporary shutdown of the flour mill in the city of Konyeurgench. However, locals in contact with Azatlyk dismissed this notion, saying there are plants producing flour in each of Dashoguz’s districts.
One person who works at a wheat storehouse in the province said there are other flour plants that are not working. This person said this was due to provincial storage facilities having the lowest amount of wheat in more than 20 years.
There is flour available.
For those who make the trip to Gyorogly district, a 50-kilogram sack of flour costs about 50 manats (a bit more than $14 at the official rate). Customers must have identification and documents showing their place of residence. There is a limit of one sack of flour per family.
There is the option of purchasing flour from Kazakhstan, which is more readily available but comes at a cost of some 190 manats (more than $50) for a 50-kilogram bag.
Several residents in Dashoguz told Azatlyk they had not been paid in three months. Some schoolteachers, for example, have bank cards and withdraw money from ATMs. Unfortunately, there usually is no money in the ATMs of Dashoguz Province and, when there is, the maximum withdrawal is 100 manats. Several said bank officials told them there was no money and urged them to “wait.” One said the local mayor told him, “If you don’t stop complaining, you will be fired.”
In the Balkan, Mary, and Lebap provinces, wage arrears of two to three months are also affecting a growing number of workers in those provinces.
The opposition website Chronicles Of Turkmenistan reported on September 6 that police, teachers, and medical workers had not received their wages for two or three months.
Azatlyk heard from dozens of workers in the oil and gas sector in those three provinces that they also had not been paid for the last two or three months.
One person in eastern Lebap Province, who said he had been working in the gas sector for 10 years, claimed no one at his company has been paid since May, except the managers.
Azatlyk heard similar stories from oil and gas workers in Mary Province, with employees of oil and gas companies in Balkan Province saying their wage arrears went back two months.
Chronicles Of Turkmenistan reported on September 25 that layoffs are under way at the state railway company. According to the report, by year’s end some 30 percent of personnel are slated to be cut. And this comes less than two years after the opening of the much-heralded North-South railway line linking Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran, which was supposed to greatly boost trade and eventually give Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan better access to ports on the Persian Gulf.
Clearly, Turkmenistan’s heavy dependence on natural gas exports is causing economic problems inside the country. It is difficult to say how bad the situation is because figures from Turkmen authorities have never been credible and it is nearly impossible for foreigners to get into the country and see.
What officials are happy to talk about -- and show -- are the lavish projects Turkmenistan is completing. The latest example is the new Ashgabat airport. Turkmenistan paid a Turkish company, Polimeks, some $2.3 billion to build it.