State media in Turkmenistan talks a lot about food these days.
Rysgal, a newspaper owned by the parastatal Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs of Turkmenistan, had a colorful spread on the topic in its November 2 issue.
One piece tells the story of the farmer Sarybay Hanbayev, who the newspaper says has had a bountiful yield of cherries, plums, applies, pears, grapes, potatoes, onions and squashes on his 100 hectares (250 acres) of land in the Dashoguz province. One five-hectare section alone produces 50 tons of grapes – a decent amount for the challenging soil of Turkmenistan.
Another article talks up the success of another private cultivator, in the Mary province. A farmer there gets 500 tons of apples out of 40 hectares of land. The same company, owned by a businessman called Toyly Chariyev, also produces grapes.
Such glowing accounts serve two related themes. One is that Turkmenistan, contrary to what is said in foreign-based media, is a land of plenty. The second is that this is being achieved by increased reliance on the private sector.
It is a fact that food is produced in accordance with Soviet-style quotas, but so, it seems, are articles about food.
Hence Ashgabat-based website Turkmenportal reporting on November 2 about a company in the Lebap province producing 20,756 tons of flour and 904 tons of baked good since the start of the year. And the article in Neutral Turkmenistan from the same day, headlined “The contribution of Dashoguz people to food plenitude,” about how more land has been allocated to the cultivation of mung beans. And the newspaper’s October 31 report about the success of the winter grain-sowing season. Next year, Neutral Turkmenistan forecasts, the “Fatherland plans to procure 1.4 million tons of wheat” thanks to the “selfless work of courageous farmers inspired by the constant support of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.”
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, in line with the practice of other international organizations based in Turkmenistan, dutifully relays official statistics on agricultural output. “The 2020 wheat output is estimated at 1.4 million tons, well below the 2019 high level, due to a 10 percent year‑on‑year reduction in plantings in favor of more profitable cotton cultivation, but 6 percent above the five‑year average,” the FAO notes in an October 29 country brief.
The work of expressing skepticism about any of this therefore invariably falls to the aforementioned foreign-based outlets, whose correspondents inside Turkmenistan work under perennial threat of assault or arrest.
Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan parsed data coming out of the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, or EAEU, to show how Ashgabat has significantly upped its food imports from members of that bloc. So, for example, Turkmenistan bought 34,300 tons of potatoes from EAEU countries in January-August, which is almost seven times as much as over the same period in 2019. Wheat imports rose by 30 percent, to 53,500 tons. Imports of sunflower oil, flour and other goods have risen too.
The amounts, it should be noted, are not especially large, however. There may be a more complicated story here than one about a government trying to cover deficits, but one that is hard to get at in the opaque realities of Turkmenistan.
One possibility is that enhanced EAEU imports are compensating for reduced traffic from Iran, where a lot of food is usually sourced. Another is that the increased allocation of land for the more profitable cultivation of cotton alluded to by the FAO has created shortages. Yet another matter about which it is all but impossible to obtain credible data is just how many people have been repatriated since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. This trend could be serving to push up demand for higher-quality imported goods from a more monied cohort.
In any event, immaterial of the upbeat accounts of the Turkmen government and the FAO, RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, reported on October 31 that shortages of items like bread, oil and eggs are now being noted in the capital, Ashgabat, as well as in the provinces, where such deficits have long been a commonplace.
“The situation with bread shortages is worsening in state-run stores,” an Azatlyk correspondent said. “Hundreds of people wait in lines for bread. They begin to sell bread at around 10-11 a.m. and in limited amounts. There is usually not enough to go around.”
According to Azatlyk, shoppers start forming lines to buy subsidized eggs from 5 a.m. The shops are supposed to open at 7 a.m., but shop managers begin selling even earlier, before the sun has risen.
“I have been told that the there is an order from the Trade Ministry [to sell eggs in the darkness] so passers-by are not able to photograph the lines for eggs,” the broadcaster’s correspondent claimed.
In a commentary on the food situation, Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news reminds its readers about how the manat-denominated state budget for 2021 is 6 percent smaller than the one adopted for 2020. The website muses whether this kind of belt-tightening might spell the beginning of the end for the subsidy economy. Shoppers will in effect be increasingly directed to buy from private retailers at higher costs.
Perhaps it is just as well, given how family budgets are growing narrower, that traveling abroad, or even inside the country, is becoming near impossible.
Turkmenistan Airlines said in a statement last week that the suspension of its international routes – to places like Russia, Turkey, Germany, India, China, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom – has been extended to 2021.
The same goes for internal travel on the country’s railways. Trains stopped running in mid-July as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus, which Ashgabat denies is present. That stoppage is now only currently expected to end on January 1.
Still, anybody stuck in the house could pop down to Turkmenistan’s first-ever Virtual Exhibition of Economic Achievements. Smarm aside, the website is genuinely slickly made and takes visitors on a digital stroll through a hall of stands showing the doings of various companies, mostly state-owned. Each stand includes brief video presentations in Turkmen, Russian and English. A video in the Turkmenistan Airlines stand plaintively claims that “systematic work is [being] carried out to expand the geography of flights of our aircraft.”
In the virtual world at least, Turkmenistan is a roaring success story.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.