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In Turkmenistan, Subsidized Food Comes With Strings Attached

Low-income shoppers at Turkmenistan's state-run stores are reportedly getting fleeced instead of finding the bargains on essentials that they're looking for. (file photo)

ASHGABAT -- Fizzy drinks. Fruit jelly. Juice. They're not on everyone's grocery list.

But shoppers in Turkmenistan complain that state-run grocery stores have informally adopted a rule that is making it even harder for them to endure the country's protracted economic malaise.

When they turn up to buy the subsidized staples that have become a necessity for many of Turkmenistan's 6 million people -- bread, cooking oil, rice -- customers say they're being forced to buy locally made products that they don't want or need.

Recently in the capital, Ashgabat, multiple shoppers told RFE/RL that shopkeepers at a government-run store wouldn't let them purchase vegetable oil without a carton of fruit juice. A kilogram of subsidized sugar? Only with a can of carbonated beverage.

All of the people who spoke to RFE/RL for this article did so wishing to remain anonymous out of fear of official retribution for their comments.

The price of flour and oil has been rocketing in Turkmenistan. (file photo)
The price of flour and oil has been rocketing in Turkmenistan. (file photo)

But with food prices up to six times higher at private shops and bazaars, it is an offer that many low-income households, in particular, can't refuse.

The tightly controlled Central Asian nation has faced years of food shortages and price hikes. The retail price of flour has gone up by 50 percent and cooking oil by 130 percent in the past year.

The practice of making the purchase of less popular products a precondition for more affordable staples has existed for a long time at some state shops.

In Lebap Province in August, for instance, some stores even required shoppers to buy a portrait of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov before they were allowed to buy bread and flour.

Now, however, residents say it has now become an unwritten rule that state stores don't sell any staple on its own. Instead, they are demanding that customers also buy one additional, locally made product of the shopkeeper's choice.

Some stores claim the practice is aimed at promoting local businesses.

As a result, customers have no choice but to take home drinks, sweets, or chickpeas that weren't on their shopping list.

Even with the unwanted, mandatory addition, they acknowledge, the foodstuffs in state grocery shops cost less than in their commercial counterparts.

People line up in front of a Turkmen state grocery store to buy cooking oil. (file photo)
People line up in front of a Turkmen state grocery store to buy cooking oil. (file photo)

Residents say they mostly buy bread, flour, meat, rice, sugar, cooking oil, and potatoes from such government shops.

But there are only limited amounts of some supplies. People sometimes wait for hours, forming long lines near the shops, to buy food. And some return home empty-handed, as supplies are depleted before they reach the front of the line.

Several people waiting in line for bread in Ashgabat recently told RFE/RL that they had traveled from the outskirts of the city because bread and flour had sold out in their neighborhood.

Government In Denial

Severe food shortages led to a rare protest in the southeastern province of Mary on April 3, when about 30 women briefly blocked a highway before marching toward the regional government office. The protesters dispersed after local officials promised them each two kilograms of flour.

Public acknowledgements of food shortages or other problems or economic hardships are rare -- at best -- in the country.

Ashgabat still denies the existence of any domestic COVID-19 cases.

In September, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the exile opposition group Turkmenistan Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) condemned the failure of the Turkmen government to acknowledge the public-health problem and provide relief to those struggling with unemployment and poverty.

In a report on September 23, HRW and TIHR said the government has no strategy to provide economic or social assistance to its people, and is failing to meet its obligations to ensure an adequate standard of living and people's right to food.

The report, Turkmenistan: Denial, Inaction Worsen Food Crisis, quoted many ordinary Turkmen citizens describing their struggles.

"Compared to a year ago, our family eats less," one Turkmen man who heads a large household said in July. "That's because we have less money, and [food] prices have gone up. We've had problems getting food due to the lines and the shortages."

Sapar, a father of eight, said in the report that his elderly mother spends long hours in lines at the state shops, waiting for goods to arrive.

"She gets up every day between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. and goes to stand in line.... Someone else may come to relieve her closer to the time the store opens. Lines may be three to four hours long until it's your turn," Sapar was quoted as saying.

Turkmenistan's economic woes have deepened since the coronavirus pandemic forced it and other countries to close their borders.

The closure of Turkmenistan's border with neighboring Iran, a major food supplier, led to further shortages and price increases.

But the problems predate the spread of the coronavirus.

A Turkmen student was quoted in the HRW and TIHR report as saying in November 2019 that his family was spending 70 to 80 percent of its entire income on food.

Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service