Turkmenistan is looking down the barrel of its worst economic crisis in years and the effects are being felt starkly on the street.
In the most radical development to date, shoppers in the capital, Ashgabat, have started reporting a lack in availability of staple groceries like sugar and cooking oil.
In some stores, sugar is missing altogether, while others are selling the commodity only in rationed amounts of 1 kilogram per buyer. Shoppers arrive at stores early in the morning and get in lines in the hope that they can get their hands on a bag. Only once they ascertain there is no sugar to be bought do they disperse.
The cheapest cottonseed oil on the market, produced by the Ahal factory, is being rationed to one or two bottles per buyer.
Smokers have it the worst. Back in January, multiple media outlets reported that Turkmenistan had slapped a ban on the sale of cigarettes. That was a slight misrepresentation of the facts, but it is most certainly true the cost of the smoking has soared and the availability of cigarettes shrunken drastically. And things continue to get worse for the cigarette-dependent. Residents of Ashgabat have reported seeing lines of many dozens of people outside stores selling tobacco.
Prices for almost all groceries are rising, and rising daily.
The unofficial exchange rate is also seeing some radical movement and reached a historic high in recent days. The official manat rate is 3.5 against the US dollar, but the currency is trading on the street for anywhere as much as 7 manat to the dollar. RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Azatlyk, has cited people inside the country as saying they have seen rates of up to 7.4 manat to the dollar.
The upward pressure has been in place since last year, when the government began putting draconian restrictions in place in a desperate bid to prevent rapid devaluation of the national currency.
The souring of the economy stems from the decline in prices for the country’s energy resources, which are Turkmenistan’s only meaningful export commodity. In addition to relying heavily on sales of natural gas, Turkmenistan has also seen its range of buyers dwindle and is now compelled to sell almost all its exports to China.
And if some reports are to be believed, it is not just citizens that are having to tighten the belt. An article published by centrasia.ru, whose reporting has not always proving entirely reliable, the government has suspended construction contracts with a substantial number of foreign companies.
The website claims that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in mid-summer ordered a freeze on foreign-led building projects out in the regions. Work is reportedly being handed instead to local contractors.
“The only foreign company still standing is Ukraine’s Altkom, which is building highway and railway bridges over the Amudarya river in the Lebap region — their decommissioning is expected in November,” the website wrote.