ASHGABAT — Food prices have reached record highs in the Turkmen capital in recent days as the government has restricted entry into Ashgabat amid apparent government efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“Beef was selling at about 40 manats (about $11 at the official rate) a kilo in the bazaar yesterday, and it was about 32 manats ($9) just three days ago,” an Ashgabat resident told RFE/RL on March 24. He added that, while meat prices go up almost daily, the price tags don’t change and still show about 24 manats ($7) a kilo for meat.
“I also bought a kilo of cooking oil for about 22 manats ($6) and it was about 13 manats ($4) last week,” said the man, who requested anonymity because of possible repercussions from officials in the secretive, authoritarian country.
But he said the prices in state stores are still the same — though the goods in those stores are rationed and most people have little chance of buying something at those lower prices because demand is so high.
“This morning, I bought a flat bread in the government store near my home, it was 1 manat (about $0.30) as usual,” he added.
Beating All Records
While Turkmen have often faced food price hikes and shortages in recent years, RFE/RL’s local correspondents said the latest increase is beating all records.
An RFE/RL Ashgabat correspondent reported that a 5-kilo can of sunflower oil has risen threefold to about 200 manat ($57) in recent days.
The average salary in Turkmenistan — a mostly desert country of some 5.8 million people — is estimated at about $400 a month.
The correspondent said there was “chaos in stores with people rushing to buy foodstuffs” in some parts of the city. Police officers were controlling the situation in Ashgabat’s Tekin bazaar and grocery stores, the correspondent reported.
The reason behind the new wave of inflation is unknown as authorities usually don’t acknowledge any hardship in the country and don’t take questions from foreign media.
RFE/RL correspondents in some of Turkmenistan’s provinces reported similar price hikes and shortages.
Meanwhile, low wages remain unchanged and unemployment and poverty are widespread in Ashgabat — a city of just over a million people — despite the nation’s abundant energy resources.
The latest price increases come as Turkmenistan banned entry to Ashgabat for nonresidents on March 20 and restricted traffic and people’s movement between the regions, also with no prior announcement or explanation.
Sources in Ashgabat said on March 24 that restrictions have since eased.
Turkmenistan hasn’t officially recorded one single infection from the coronavirus, even though bordering countries Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan have registered dozens of infections and southern neighbor Iran has reported tens of thousands of cases and nearly 2,000 deaths.
Contacted by RFE/RL, Turkmen officials denied reports in early March that at least two people had been infected with the virus and were being held under quarantine at a hospital outside Ashgabat.
However, authorities have launched nationwide measures since February to contain an unnamed “virus,” tightening security at border checkpoints, disinfecting public buildings, and setting up quarantine facilities for Turkmen returning from abroad.
Turkmen have also been officially urged — including by the country’s mercurial leader, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov — to use traditional methods and herbal remedies to treat any respiratory-system infections.
RFE/RL obtained a copy of an official document on March 19 that ordered medical teams to check the body temperatures of passengers boarding intercity flights, trains, and buses. A similar measure was applied to drivers and passengers of private vehicles.
The document didn’t mention the coronavirus and instead vaguely spoke of an “illness” and “virus.”
It also instructed police and doctors not to allow passengers who have “fever and symptoms” to board planes, buses, and trains and to transfer them to nearby hospitals.
The document said people who are released after being under quarantine for the “illness” must register with their local police upon returning home.
Travel between the provinces is allowed only for emergency-medical reasons, family weddings, funerals, and visiting sick relatives, the document said.
Every traveler must, however, carry a letter from local authorities confirming the reason for travel.