Life is getting dearer in Turkmenistan.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov last week instructed a deputy prime minister in charge of the domestic energy industry to begin the process of installing gas meters in people’s homes.
Speaking at a government meeting on April 28, Berdymukhamedov cast the measure as a energy-saving provision.
To judge by earlier statements, however, the move appears more likely intended to slash government expenditures and gradually wean the population off the current generous system of subsidies. Turkmen households at the moment receive 600 cubic meters of household gas free of charge every year, as well free electricity and water.
Berdymukhamedov has previously argued that scrapping such handouts would enable Turkmenistan make a transition toward a market-based system.
In April 2016, he said that although all-encompassing benefits had proven vital in the early years of independence, they had now outlived their usefulness.
“This factor prevents us from making the transition to a market economy and also leads to additional government expenditures,” he said.
Tellingly, however, even after a full year since those remarks, the government still has not yet actually implemented any measures toward cutting benefits — an evident acknowledgment of concerns that any such move could spark deep discontent. It is received wisdom that the benefits, in addition to systematic authoritarian practices, are what enables the government to lull the population into quiescent compliance.
Such talk of liberalizing prices is spreading anxiety of rises in the cost of living elsewhere.
Foreign-based news website Alternative News of Turkmenistan reported a sudden panic around gas stations on the evening of April 30 following rumors of an anticipated spike in fuel prices. According to ANT, the substance of the scuttlebutt was that the price for a liter of A-95 grade gas was set to jump from 1 manat (around $0.30 at the official rate) to 2.5 manat or even possibly 3.5 manat.
Hoping to save some money, many motorists spent an entire night waiting in line at gas stations, the website reported.
Gas attendants do not appear to have been apprised of any plans to hike prices, but ANT said the speculation may have arisen from actual increases in the cost of train and plane tickets.
As of May 1, the cost of internal train trips has doubled, while the price of air tickets has increased by up to 20 percent, RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk reported.
Berdymukhamedov justified this particular measure by reminding people of the purported rising level of incomes.
“Every year in our country, we raise salaries, pensions and benefits by 10 percent. That is much more than people spend on air and train tickets,” he said in a government meeting on April 14.
The cost of supplementary services for train passengers has gone up too. Whenever travelers buy tickets, they are also charged an additional 4 manat for the use of linen in sleeper cars.
“According to passengers, linen used to be paid for directly on the train, when it was given to you. And passengers are not given any receipt,” an Ashgabat resident told Radio Azatlyk.