Turkmenistan has not in recent memory experienced much trouble providing its population with eggs. Until this recent holiday weekend, that is.
In the run-up to Orthodox Easter, which is celebrated in Turkmenistan by the Slavic community, eggs were in high demand and short supply.
The shortage of the item served as another reminder of the government’s increasing struggle to maintain the rosy facade during the self-styled “Era of Might and Happiness,” as falling prices for the country’s natural gas exports cause the economy to stall.
Eggs have not disappeared entirely, but they have been hard to find and deliveries have been spotty.
Those lucky enough may have had a consignment of a few dozen eggs arrive at their local state store. In the capital, they were selling at 33 tenge ($0.10) apiece. There are 100 tenge to one Turkmen manat.
At one state-run Ashgabat store, a Russian woman in her fifties picked up a crate of 30 eggs and went to pay at the cashier, but her joy was short-lived. “Each buyer is allowed only 10 eggs, otherwise nobody else will have any,” the shopkeeper told the woman in a scene witnessed by a EurasiaNet.org correspondent.
The buyer protested, but to no avail. The 10-egg limit was enforced at most state-run shops — in the capital at least.
Enterprising shopkeepers have exploited the shortage to hike their prices for eggs from the regular state price to anywhere between 15 to 18 manats for a crate of 30. A rumor began circulating around the city on the eve of the Easter holiday weekend that a trove of eggs had surfaced at state-run shops in the Dashoguz market, in an eastern district of Ashgabat.
Sensing the sudden demand, the sellers there set stringent conditions. In a reversal of the buy-two-get-one-free concept, buyers could either buy 10 eggs at 33 tenge apiece, or 3.30 manats, or pay for a crate of 30 at the higher price of 11 manats.
In the days when it was easier to convert manats into foreign currency, traders brought in large parties of eggs from neighboring Iran. But with foreign cash now in short supply, shops are forced to rely almost entirely on local producers, who are unable to meet sudden surges in demand.
Eggs are only the latest casualty of the currency troubles.
Sugar has again become hard to locate, and when it surfaces at private retail outlets, it sells at 3.60 manats per kilogram.
There have even been problems finding the domestically produced Ahal-branded cotton oil, a pungent and affordable alternative to sunflower oil. Cotton oil is particularly favored in the preparation of plov. At the moment, there is a limit of one bottle of Ahal per buyer. Cheaper brands are available, but not trusted. Foreign imports, meanwhile, are out of the reach of most regular Turkmen citizens.
The situation is likened by some commentators to what occurred in the late Soviet period, when large lines would form outside stores, although many basic items would not be available to purchase. Ill-tempered pushing and shoving in line is not an uncommon sight.
The solution to the problem is also partly the cause.
Import substitution remains at the top of the government’s agenda and is touted as a vital means by which to drag the country out of total reliance on gas exports.
Authorities are eager to trumpet their success, but the evidence for such boasts is sparse.
In late March, the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs of Turkmenistan organized a fair intended to show off the latest achievements in import substitution. These included fruit juices and canned goods produced by a company owned by local entrepreneur Murat Allayazov, and based at the S. Rozmetov farmer collective in a village in the northern Dashoguz province.
Allayazov told SNG.Today, a Russian-based website churning out vigorously pro-government news items about the former Soviet nations, that his Dashoguz plant is only one of several, but judging by the output there — a meager 150 liters daily — there is little chance it will make much impact.
Evaluating the real outcome of specific policies is difficult because authorities divulge little or no information — and what data does trickle out is far from accurate. Again, SNG.Today reported on April 8, citing its own purported correspondent in Ashgabat, that goods for everyday groceries have been particularly stable of late.
“Potatoes in the markets … in Ashgabat are 2.36 manats [per kilogram],” the website claimed, going on to list a whole range of supposedly readily available produce.
Independent observers on the ground are quick to contradict such reports. Ashgabat residents say that the real average price for potatoes in the capital is closer to the 3.5-4 manat range. Greenish, bitter-tasting potatoes from Pakistan can be found cheaply in some markets, but they are little liked. Iranian potatoes, which are the most popular, are the most expensive.
At an April 14 government meeting, officials appeared to signal that prices for goods and services across the board will be permitted to float upwards in the coming weeks and months. Deputy Prime Minister for Transportation Issues, Bayram Annameredov, suggested that an imminent increase in prices for air and train tickets may be in order, so as to fund improvements in transportation.
State media cited President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov as saying that in response to rising prices, the state intends to raise salaries and pensions by 10 percent every year. “These hikes [to salaries and pensions] will, to some extent, meet the burden of those [higher] costs,” he said.