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Food lines in a land of marble

Article by Bruce Pannier

July 12, 2019

Food lines in a land of marble

On June 5th 2019 in Turkmenistan’s capital Ashgabat, dozens of people lined up outside a state store where they heard there was sugar for sale.[1] Four years ago, there were no lines outside state stores. Now there are lines for almost everything, and it is worse outside the capital.

The folly of depending on exports of natural gas for revenues is evident now in Turkmenistan, though it has not stopped the government from its profligate spending on projects that seem to be of little, if any, value to the people of the country. The people of Turkmenistan increasingly bear the burden of trying to keep the regime of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov financially afloat, awhile they live through the worst period in Turkmenistan’s nearly 28 years as an independent country. Alongside the decreases in the standards of living, Turkmenistan’s people face increases in restrictions.

The price of natural gas in 2014 averaged about US $350 per 1,000 cubic metres. By 2016, the price was closer to US $200. Turkmenistan’s system is opaque and such figures, which the state provides, are often suspect. It is believed between 70 and 80 per cent of Turkmenistan’s revenue comes from the sale of natural gas. Turkmenistan lost Russia as a customer at the start of 2016, and Iran as a customer at the start of 2017, leaving China as the only country currently purchasing any large volumes of Turkmen gas.

Toward the end of 2016, information started leaking out of Turkmenistan, suggesting shortages of basic food items in some areas of the country. In September 2016, in the northern Dashoguz Province there was a shortage of flour. Of nine districts in the province, only one (Gorogly district) had flour and that was at the flour mill.[2] More than one million people live in Dashoguz Province, some residing 200 kilometres from the Gorogly district. One Dashoguz resident said the line outside the flour plant was “so long it can take three to five days. People sleep in front of the mill“.[3] There was a limit of one 50-kilogram sack of flour per family, but the price at the mill was about 50 manat (a bit more than US $14) while the other option, flour from neighbouring Kazakhstan, cost 190 manat (more than US $50). By December, there were reports many state stores in Dashoguz were short of sugar and cooking oil. People wishing to purchase such items often had to put their names on waiting lists, and the wait could be as long as four to five weeks.[4]

In December 2017, high quality flour had practically disappeared from many parts of Turkmenistan. In Ashgabat, and in the Mary and Lebap provinces, the price had reportedly risen from 50 manat per sack of flour to 100 manat.[5] In February 2018, people seeking to purchase bread in Dashoguz were reportedly required to prove they had paid their gas and electric bills.[6] By the end of that month flour was being rationed to one five-kilogram sack per customer in Dashoguz. In Mary Province flour was limited to one sack (still 50 kilograms) per family and it had to be pre-ordered.[7] Even in Ashgabat, there was a limit of one one-kilogram bag of flour and a half kilogram of sugar per customer. It had previously been five kilograms of flour and one kilogram of sugar per customer.[8] In November 2018, the Hronika Turkmenistana website posted a video, said to be filmed in Ashgabat, showing people waiting for a bread truck to arrive at the local state store and being limited to no more than two loaves of bread (the flat bread that Turkmen call ‘chorek’).[9] Despite a report from a television channel in Kazakhstan that said Turkmenistan had imported some 100,000 tons of grain from Kazakhstan.[10]

Goods such as sugar, flour, and cooking oil are available at private stores and at bazaars, but the price can be anywhere from three to 10 times what it would be at a state store, so many people chose to wait. There were reports in October 2018 that people from the regions were coming to Ashgabat hoping to buy bread, flour, and cooking oil and that police were stopping and inspecting cars with license plates from the regions looking for food. Those caught taking food out of Ashgabat were fined.[11]  It became increasingly difficult to enter Ashgabat. By February 2019, vehicles from the regions were forced to halt anywhere from five to 25 kilometres outside Ashgabat’s city limits.[12]

Money, actual cash, is in short supply in Turkmenistan. The government attempted to make Turkmenistan a cashless country by issuing bank cards to citizens and directly depositing salaries, pensions, and other social benefit payments into bank accounts. But many stores still do not have the necessary machines to accept card payments. Bazaars certainly are not set up for accepting bank cards. So, people take money out of automated teller machines (ATMs). These ATMs are not regularly stocked with cash, especially in the regions. When an ATM is replenished, word quickly spreads and lines form, everybody hoping the machine will still have cash when their turn comes to make a withdrawal. Security forces and police often watch lines outsides banks now since scuffles have broken out in lines and, on occasions, people have complained loudly about the government and the president.[13] Even when there is money, there are limits as to the amount of cash that can be withdrawn. Exchange bureaus in Turkmenistan stopped selling hard foreign currency in January 2016.[14] The rate of the manat on the black market at that time was between 4 to 4.2 manat to US $1. The official rate was and remains 3.5 manat to U.S. $1, but as of the start of June 2019, the black market rate is between 18.5 to 19 manat to US $1.

Unemployment is high. Turkmen authorities have never released figures for unemployment, but it is estimated 60 to 70 per cent of the eligible workforce is unemployed or underemployed. The last four years have seen layoffs in almost every sector of the country, from state employees to workers in the key gas and oil industry.

Turkmen authorities have gradually tightened restrictions for those wishing to fly out of Turkmenistan. In April 2018, there were reports authorities at the Ashgabat airport, the only airport in Turkmenistan with international flights, were preventing people under 30 years of age from boarding international flights.[15] By late June 2018, the age restriction had reportedly increased to people under 40.[16]

Women’s rights have diminished since 2016. In October 2016, women were forbidden from buying cigarettes. This restriction was eased into force in Turkmenbashi City so only women with notes from doctors saying they were addicted to tobacco could purchase cigarettes.[17] In May 2018, a dress code was introduced for non-Turkmen women in Ashgabat, obligating them to wear traditional long Turkmen dresses. Later a ban on miniskirts was introduced.[18] In February 2019, there were reports police in Ashgabat were confiscating drivers’ licenses from women.[19] And in June 2019, there was a report authorities were refusing to renew the expired drivers’ licenses of women.[20]

Students studying abroad are required to return to Turkmenistan during school breaks. Also, when they are studying abroad students from Turkmenistan have limited access to funding from home. In July 2017, parents back in Turkmenistan were limited to sending only 1,050 manat (US $300 at the official rate) per month through Western Union.[21] Some Turkmen students in Belarus, Russia, Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan were forced to withdraw from universities because they did not receive money in time to pay tuition.[22]

Allotments of water, gas, and electricity that the government has provided for free to the population since shortly after independence, were reduced starting in 2017, then totally canceled at the start of 2019. Residents were expected to pay for the installation of metres to measure their household usage of gas and water. The cost of sending children to kindergarten has also increased. In October 2017, the cost of kindergarten in Dashoguz increased from eight to 80 manat per month, with increases across Turkmenistan.[23] A group of outraged mothers went to the city administration building to complain, an act that just a few years ago would have been unthinkable. The special police unit OMON was called to the scene. The deputy head of municipal education came out and told the women he could not do anything for them, and recommended they take their concerns to the mayor’s office, which they did. Later the same day, the deputy education head was arrested and charged with calling for an overthrow of the government.[24]

To listen to Berdimuhamedov and state media, one would get the impression Turkmenistan was a paradise, the envy of countries around the world. Despite a deepening economic crisis with the accompanying shortages affecting the country’s people so much, Turkmen authorities continued spending money on projects of questionable benefit.

In December 2010, Turkmenistan was chosen to host the 2017 Asian Indoor Martial Arts Games (AIMAG). When Turkmenistan was selected as the AIMAG host, the country was exporting gas to Russia, Iran, and had just completed two (of four planned) gas pipelines to China. Gas prices were rising on global markets. By 2015, gas was half the 2010 price. Authorities had approved construction of a US $2.3 billion airport outside Ashgabat for AIMAG. The cost of construction for the AIMAG facilities, including a circular five-kilometre monorail system, was estimated at more than US $5 billion. As gas revenues fell, the government started garnishing workers’ wages as ‘voluntary donations’ for AIMAG.[25] Non-residents of Ashgabat, many of whom had been there to help build the AIMAG facilities, were chased from Ashgabat before the games opened on September 17th, 2017. Thousands of citizens were organised as volunteers to help with AIMAG or as spectators to keep event halls full so that media coverage, especially foreign media, showed images of packed stadiums and indoor gyms.

20 days after AIMAG ended, Turkmenistan’s first golf course opened in Ashgabat, despite the fact few in Turkmenistan know anything about the game, and Turkmenistan is nearly 90 per cent covered by desert, so water is scarce. In May 2018, the Caspian port in Turkmenbashi City reopened after US $1.5 billion in renovation and modernization work. In July 2018, Turkmen authorities announced the completion of a 170-hectare artificial island in the shape of a crescent off Turkmenistan’s Caspian coast.[26]

When state media is not boasting about these achievements, it often covers President Berdimuhamedov’s exploits. Berdimuhamedov claims to have authored more than 40 books on topics ranging from tea to the native Akhal Teke horse, as well as books such as ‘Arkadag’s Doctrine. The basis for health and inspiration.’ State television shows Berdimuhamedov riding bicycles, horses, lifting weights, playing guitar or piano, singing songs, etc., sometimes with his grandsons. Among state television’s recent favourites are clips showing the president twisting and turning expensive automobiles around racetracks and in the desert, or dressing in military fatigues to participate in military drills, and sometimes demonstrating how to fire weapons and throw knives.[27]

Small wonder some of Turkmenistan’s citizens have chosen to leave the country. According to a recent report, some 1.9 million people, more than one-third of Turkmenistan’s population, might have already left in the last decade.[28] It is difficult to know if this is true. Turkmenistan never released the results of its last census in 2009. But it is known that many thousands of Turkmenistan’s citizens have left for Turkey, Cyprus, Russia, and other countries looking for work and they have not returned to Turkmenistan.


[1] Radio Azatlyk, В Ашхабаде продолжается дефицит продуктов, сохраняются очереди за сахаром (The deficit of products continues in Ashgabat, the lines for sugar are still there), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 2019, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/29982598.html

[2] Qishloq Ovozi, Turkmenistan’s Reality: Unpaid Wages And Shortages Of Food, RFE/RL, September 2016, https://www.rferl.org/a/turkmenistan-reality-unpaid-wages-food-shortages/28016347.html

[3] Ibid.

[4] Qishloq Ovozi, On The Waiting List For Sugar, Cooking Oil In Turkmenistan, RFE/RL, December 2016, https://www.rferl.org/a/qishloq-ovozi-waiting-list-for-sugar-cooking-oil/28154447.html

[5] Radio Azatlyk, В Туркменистане наблюдается дефицит муки (Turkmenistan is witnessing a flour shortage), RFE/RL, December 2017, https://rus.azattyq.org/a/28894201.html

[6] Radio Azatlyk, В Туркменистане для покупки муки требуют справку об отсутствии задолжности за газ и электричество (To purchase bread in Turkmenistan one must bring a form showing they have no debts for gas and electricity), RFE/RL, February 2018, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/29043406.html

[7] Radio Azatlyk, В Дашогузе на одного взрослого члена семьи можно купить 5 килограмм муки, а в Мары нужно отстоять долгую очередь (In Dashoguz one adult family member can purchase 5 kilogram of flour, and in Mary one must wait in long lines), RFE/RL, February 2018, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/29063701.html

[8] Туркменистан: Продовольственный кризис добрался до столицы (Food crisis reaches the capital), Turkmen.news (formerly the Alternative News of Turkmenistan), March 2018, https://habartm.org/archives/8729

[9] В Ашхабаде по-прежнему наблюдаются очереди за хлебом (As previously, there are queues in Ashgabat for bread), Hronika Turkmenistana, November 2018, https://www.hronikatm.com/2018/11/v-ashhabade-po-prezhnemu-nablyudayutsya-ocheredi-za-hlebom/

[10] Казахстан отправил на экспорт более 5 млн тонн зерна (Kazakhstan exported more than 5 million tonnes of grain), Khabar 24 TV, September 2018, https://24.kz/ru/news/economyc/item/264623-kazakhstan-otpravil-na-eksport-bolee-5-mln-tonn-zerna

[11] Полицейские штрафуют водителей за вывоз продуктов из Ашхабада в регионы (Police are fining drivers for taking food from Ashgabat to the regions), Hronika Turkmenistana, October 2018, https://www.hronikatm.com/2018/10/politseyskie-shtrafuyut-voditeley-za-vyivoz-produktov-iz-ashhabada-v-regionyi/

[12] В Ашхабад по-прежнему не пропускают машины из регионов (They are still not allowing vehicles from regions into Ashgabat), Hronika Turkmenistana, February 2019, https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/02/ashhabad-po-prezhnemu-zakryt-dlya-inogorodnego-transporta/

[13] Qishloq Ovozi, The Sights And Sounds Of Discontent In Turkmenistan, RFE/RL, October 2018, https://www.rferl.org/a/the-sights-and-sounds-of-discontent-in-turkmenistan/29555377.html

[14] Olzhas Auyezov, Turkmenistan exchange bureaus stop selling foreign currency, Reuters, January 2016, https://www.reuters.com/article/turkmenistan-forex/turkmenistan-exchange-bureaus-stop-selling-foreign-currency-idUSL8N14W2XY20160112

[15] В Туркменистане с международных рейсов снимают молодых людей (Young people are being taken off international flights in Turkmenistan), Hronika Turkmenistana, April 2018, https://www.hronikatm.com/2018/04/v-turkmenistane-s-mezhdunarodnyih-reysov-snimayut-molodyih-lyudey/

[16] Radio Azatlyk, Из Туркменистана не выпускают граждан моложе 40 лет (They are not allowing people under 40 to leave Turkmenistan), RFE/RL, June 2018, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/29323179.html

[17] Туркменбаши: Женщинам продают сигареты по справке из наркологии (Turkmenbashi: Cigarettes are sold to women if they have a note from narcology), Alternative News of Turkmenistan, January 2017, https://habartm.org/archives/6282

[18] Radio Azatlyk, В Ашхабаде от женщин не туркменской национальности требуют носить длинные платья. (In Ashgabat women who are not of Turkmen nationality are required to wear long dresses), RFE/RL, May 2018, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/29261043.html

[19] Radio Azatlyk, Ашхабадская полиция отбирает водительские права у женщин (Ashgabat police confiscating drivers’ licenses from women), RFE/RL, February 2019, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/29776458.html

[20] Radio Azatlyk, В Туркменистане женщинам не продлевают водительские удостоверения (They are not prolonging drivers’ licenses for women), RFE/RL, June 2019, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/29978517.html

[21] В Туркменистане выстраиваются очереди из желающих перевести деньги за рубеж (In Turkmenistan lines are forming for those wishing to send money abroad), Hronika Turkmenistana, July 2017, http://www.chrono-tm.org/2017/07/v-turkmenistane-vyistraivayutsya-ogromnyie-ocheredi-iz-zhelayushhih-perevesti-dengi-za-rubezh-2/

[22] Azatlyk, Родители студентов, отчисленных из-за неуплаты по вине туркменских банков, не могут вернуть свои деньги (Parents of students who were expelled for not paying tuition because of Turkmen banks cannot get their money back), RFE/RL, July 2018, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/29360779.html

[23] Radio Azatlyk, В Дашогузе 10-кратное увеличение оплаты детсада вызвало стихийную акцию протеста. (A 10-time increase in the cost for kindergarten sparks spontaneous action), RFE/RL, October 2017, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/28791955.html

[24] Radio Azatlyk, После протеста против повышения оплаты детского сада чиновника в Дашогузе обвиняют в «призыве к восстанию против власти» (After the protest against the increase in fees for kindergarten, an official is charged with “calling for the overthrow of the government”), RFE/RL, October 2017, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/28802325.html

[25] Qishloq Ovozi, Milking Turkmenistan’s People To Pay For The Games, RFE/RL, March 2017, https://www.rferl.org/a/qishloq-ovozi-milking-turkmen-people-pay-for-games/28403657.html

[26] Turkmenistan creates artificial island near Caspian coast, Trend,  July 2018, https://www.azernews.az/region/134953.html

[27] Президент Туркменистана принял участие в военных учениях (The president of Turkmenistan took part in military exercises), Hronika Turkmenistana, August 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OtLxYyf8K8I

[28] Radio Azatlyk, Источник: За 10 лет из Туркменистана выехало почти 1,9 миллиона человек (Source: During the last 10 years almost 1.9 million people have left Turkmenistan), RFE/RL, May 2019, https://rus.azathabar.com/a/29969698.html

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