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За демократию и права человека в Туркменистане  For Democracy and Human Rights in Turkmenistan
26.04.2018  
English

23.12.2017
A Second Year Of Shortages In Turkmenistan

Bruce Pannier

Food shortages and high prices for basic goods are not the only recent signs of Turkmenistan's economic decay.

Turkmenistan has a population of some 5 million people. Turkmenistan also has the fourth-largest natural-gas reserves in the world.

The small population and the large amount of gas led Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, to predict after its 1991 independence that Turkmenistan would become a second Kuwait and everybody would be driving Mercedes.

Instead, Turkmenistan is facing its second straight year of shortages of basic foods as winter approaches.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, spoke with people around Turkmenistan in the days leading up to December 12, the day in 1995 that the UN officially recognized Turkmenistan as a neutral country.

The situation they described is far from a second Kuwait.

A reminder: We are withholding the names of people who spoke with Azatlyk because the Turkmen government doesn't like RFE/RL and makes life difficult for people who speak with us.

One man told Azatlyk that the price of a cheap churek (the round bread of the region) weighing 450 to 500 grams in the northern Dashoguz Province was normally 1 manat (USD 0.28) but that since the start of December the price has risen to 1.40 manats.

Azatlyk heard that the price of similar bread in the western Balkan Province recently rose from 1 manat to 1.5 manats.

The situation is the same in the south-central Mary Province.

In the capital, Ashgabat, one woman said the price of imported chicken legs at state stores was 8 manats per kilogram, but she said there was a 1-kilogram limit for customers. There was no limit in private stores, the woman said, but the price is 10 manats per kilogram.

Eggs are also reportedly in short supply in Ashgabat.

One man said the price of good quality bread in Ashgabat had gone from 2 manats in early December to 3.5 manats by Neutrality Day.

Azatlyk reported about the shortage of flour in Mary and the southern Ahal provinces in late November when the price of good quality flour went from 50 to 100 manats per 50-kilogram sack and a sack of fair-quality flour jumped from 44 manats to 90.

The sudden, drastic increase seemingly led to hoarding and by December 1 flour was in short supply around the country and is now apparently the cause of the increase in the price of bread.

The situation appears not to have reached the point it did last December when people were putting their names on lists to be notified when sugar or cooking oil arrived at local stores.

But in late 2016, the problems with food shortages started with flour.

Food shortages and high prices for basic goods are not the only recent signs of Turkmenistan's economic decay.

In November, Azatlyk reported on impending cuts in the oil and gas sector, the backbone of the country's economy. Significantly, many of the personnel slated for layoffs were involved in drilling and maintaining wells - a possible indicator that Turkmenistan already has more gas and oil than it can sell.

But Azatlyk reported on December 13 that there will be cuts in law enforcement agencies. A person in the eastern Lebap Province who knows about the cuts said: «In January 2018, they will cut some 1,000 police.»

Another source in Lebap confirmed the coming reduction in the Lebap branch of the Interior Ministry but said it was not yet clear how many police officers would be laid off.

This source said the reductions would be imposed throughout the country and added some police officers say the department for fighting crime might be eliminated altogether.

And there are reports that a 30 percent reduction of state employees across the board is coming after the New Year.

Also, the black market value of the manat has dropped from around 5 or 6 to USD 1 at the start of 2017 to more than 10 manats to USD 1 as of early December, though the official rate remains 3.5 manats to USD 1, as it has been since February 2015.

For some two years now, Qishloq Ovozi has concluded tales of Turkmenistan's economic woes by pointing out there was not much hope Turkmenistan's economy would pick up and noting that the government was running out of options.

There are now two rays of hope breaking through Turkmenistan's dark economic clouds.

The first was President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov making reference to the use of the Stabilization Fund to help with the “successful implementation of social and economic programs” in 2018.

Qishloq Ovozi has already looked at the Stabilization Fund.

Berdymukhammedov used billions of dollars that Niyazov had deposited in foreign banks to create the fund, and there are suspicions Berdymukhammedov has added many billions of dollars more, siphoned off from gas sales.

No one in Turkmenistan talks about the fund, leaving some to speculate Berdymukhammedov might be keeping it all for himself.

The fact that Berdymukhammedov said he is actually using the money for its stated purpose, to augment Turkmenistan's 2018 budget, could be seen as a sign of how desperate Turkmenistan's economic situation has become.

There is also a breakthrough in the legal status of the Caspian Sea. Reportedly, it will clear the way for Turkmenistan to finally build the Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) and send some 30 billion cubic meters of gas to Europe.

Until the convention on the Caspian Sea's legal status is signed, it is still unclear whether the TCP can really be built without Russia and Iran objecting, as they have for two decades.

But even the possibility the TCP might finally be realized would give Berdymukhammedov something to hold out to Turkmenistan's population, the promise that tomorrow might be better than today.

At the moment, though, such a tomorrow seems a long way off as Turkmenistan's people stock up on all the basic goods they can obtain ahead of what many see as another year of shortages.

Azatlyk Director Farruh Yusupov contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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