Let Them Eat Purges
Reported bread shortages lead to long lines for most and possible prison sentences for some by EurasiaNet 7 December 2006
Panic buying and price hikes have hit Turkmenistan amid the failure of the country’s winter wheat crop. State-run stores in the capital, Ashgabat, are experiencing bread shortages, according to witnesses.
The first hint of trouble in Turkmenistan, which human rights groups have portrayed as among the most repressive states in the world, appeared in late November, when the head of the government, Saparmurat Niyazov, announced a purge of state managers in the country’s agricultural sector. In addition, the crop crisis served as a catalyst for the dismissal of the country’s five regional governors. “In 2007, there won’t be enough bread for everyone,” Niyazov stated during a government meeting broadcast by state television.
Niyazov’s action came after an audit had shown the officials had falsified data on the winter wheat and cotton crops. Niyazov cited all five regions – Ahal, Balkan, Dasoguz, Lebap, and Mary – where officials reported complete fulfillment of a winter wheat-sowing campaign. In reality, “wheat-sowing amounted to less that 50 percent [of the established targets] in each of these regions,” Niyazov complained. He went on to claim having had difficulty sleeping “since I learned about the way you plant wheat.”
The self-styled Turkmenbashi, or the great head of the Turkmen people, also expressed dissatisfaction with officials in charge of the country’s flour production and distribution network. Some of the officials dismissed in the scandal are now under criminal investigation and are likely to receive prison terms, according to a regional observer with knowledge of the situation.
'THERE IS NO BREAD'
Niyazov’s shake-up has done nothing to relieve the deepening shortages throughout the country. A source in Turkmenistan reported that bread lines are now common outside state shops, and store shelves have been stripped clean of wheat-based products, such as flour and macaroni. Such commodities are “always of low quality but normally are readily available,” the source said, adding that the quality of state-sold bread has noticeably deteriorated. In addition, the price of imported flour from Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine, which is generally of higher quality than domestically produced flour, has skyrocketed.
“Most of the time now there is no bread at government stores,” the source said. “Commercial outlets run out of bread fast, too. It’s even the case that bazaar vendors don’t have bread either.”
It is difficult to gauge conditions in outlying provinces. However, Niyazov, in comments broadcast during a televised cabinet session, hinted that dire shortages are nothing new outside of the capital. “Do you want what happened in the 1990s to happen again?” Niyazov said in a cryptic caution to a subordinate.
A rationing system, designed to enable low-income families to supplement their diets, had fallen into disuse but is being revived. Lines are seen forming outside neighborhood administration offices, where the coupons are distributed to eligible recipients.
THE PRICE OF LOYALTY
Observers say Niyazov’s constant purging of the bureaucracy is a major contributing factor in the brewing agricultural catastrophe. There are few people left in positions of authority with the proper qualifications to keep the economy running. Niyazov has stressed political loyalty above all else in carrying out his personnel policy.
Turkmenistan holds vast reserves of natural gas, and thus could afford to import sufficient stocks of flour to prevent a shortage in the event of crop failure. Whether Niyazov will order the expenditure of state funds on such imports remains uncertain. He has taken action in recent years to seal Turkmenistan off from outside influences, going so far as to ban the state ballet company and the philharmonic orchestra as alien to Turkmen traditions.
Making significant wheat purchases in foreign markets would run counter to the prevailing trend in Turkmenistan that has stressed self-reliance. Statistics indicate that the government’s policies are having a detrimental effect on Turkmen society. According to the UN Development Program’s 2006 Human Development Index, Turkmenistan ranked 105 out of 177 states measured by a variety of socio-economic indicators. UNDP indicators, for example, show that average life expectancy at birth in Turkmenistan has fallen dramatically in just the past few years and now stands at 62.5 years.