A New Year Brings The Same Old Problems For Turkmenistan In The Era Of 'The Protector'

Turkmenistan’s rubber-stamp parliament has declared 2022 the Era of the People with Arkadag (Protector) -- that is, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov -- in the latest sign of the authoritarian’s leader’s personality cult and his denial of the country’s deepening economic woes.

The parliament and state media recently hailed the “great successes” the nation has achieved on the economy, in politics, and other aspects of life under the leadership of its “Hero-Protector,” whose dictatorial rule began in 2006.

Berdymukhammedov started the new year with a working trip to the southern Mary region, shortly after giving a New Year's Day speech about Turkmenistan's continued "bright path of success and achievement."

The speech made no mention of the country's widespread unemployment, a shortage of affordable food, and inflation that has pushed many ordinary Turkmen to the brink of poverty andforced millions of others to leave the country.

“We achieved sustainable economic growth [and] launched a number of large-scale projects last year,” the president said.

“A large number of social and industrial facilities were built and commissioned, while thousands of happy families moved into their new homes,” he claimed.

The president also presented a new poem called Homeland Turkmenistan that described the Central Asian country as a “sunny place” where “children sing joyfully” and people enjoy the “comforts of life.”

Many ordinary Turkmen, however, say their everyday lives are anything but joyful.

Surging Prices

In Lebap Province, the new year marked a new price hike for many foodstuffs, several residents told RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service.

The prices of staples, such as bread, flour, cooking oil, and eggs increased by 30 to 50 percent, RFE/RL correspondents reported, citing customers and shopkeepers in Lebap.

The price of vegetable oil, for example, rose from about $10 per liter in December to some $13.40 at the beginning of January when shops and bazaars reopened after New Year's celebrations.

The price of eggs went up from $0.80 each to nearly $1.30 on January 1. The price hikes were reported both in bazaars and state-owned grocery stores that offer staples at lower prices.

In the capital, Ashgabat, prices for vegetables and fruit increased almost overnight -- just ahead of the New Year celebrations, RFE/RL correspondents reported.

The price of fresh tomatoes went from $1.40 per kilo to $2, while the price of cucumbers rose from $2.30 to $2.60, the correspondent said. The price of kiwi fruits jumped by 100 percent, from $4.30 to $8.60 per kilogram.

The price hikes have put a significant strain on the family budget of ordinary Turkmen, most of whom already spend almost all their income on food because they “just can’t afford anything else,” one Ashgabat resident said.

“Many people survive on bread, rice, buckwheat, and vegetables, they don’t buy meat apart from occasionally purchasing [subsidized] chicken from state stores,” said a woman who requested anonymity out of security concerns.

The average of price of meat remained unchanged in Ashgabat at $20 a kilo, making meat a “luxury” product in the country where public sector workers earn about $370 to $430 a month.

Widespread Unemployment

Unemployment is widespread in Turkmenistan, believed to be between 30 and 60 percent. Even those who have jobs often complain that they don’t receive their wages on time.

Shortages of affordable food in Turkmenistan began in 2016 after the gas-rich country’s state budget was severely hit by the global decline in hydrocarbon prices.

The crisis was exacerbated further by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, although Ashgabat hasn’t reported a single case of the coronavirus.

Price hikes in Turkmenistan occur with no prior announcement or explanation by authorities, who don’t publicly mention or acknowledge the existence of any problem in the country.

State media in recent days has been providing extensive coverage of the president’s trip to Mary, where he visited the Galkynysh gas field, took part in the opening ceremony of a factory, and met local shepherds.

State television, meanwhile, still shows footage of Berdymukhammedov celebrating New Year's with his family at home, where he read out his latest poem, before his grandson, Kerimguly, performs his latest song for the Turkmen people.