Government denial and inaction worsen food crisis in Turkmenistan

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The government inaction in response to the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic has drastically exacerbated Turkmenistan’s pre-existing food crisis, Human Rights Watch and the Turkmenistan Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) said on Wednesday. Shortages of subsidized food, accelerating since 2016, have worsened, with people waiting hours in line to try to buy more affordable food products, often being turned away empty-handed.

Turkmenistan’s government denies the existence of poverty in the country and has failed to provide relief to economically vulnerable groups, even as unemployment has skyrocketed during the pandemic. In the absence of any strategy to provide economic or social assistance, constraints on people’s access to affordable food mean that the government is failing to meet its international obligations to ensure an adequate standard of living and the right to food.

“Turkmenistan’s government has prioritized the country’s image over people’s well-being,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “With no effort to identify and assist the people most in need at this critical moment, Turkmenistan is callously neglecting the most basic norms of human rights, which include the right to food.”

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The Turkmen government should take immediate measures to make sure that people can get adequate food, Human Rights Watch and TIHR said. The government should also commission an independent, nationwide household survey to assess poverty and food security, make the data public, and use the information to ensure effective, affordable access to adequate, nutritious food for all members of society, the groups added.

The country’s only universal assistance program provides government-subsidized food in so-called state shops. Anyone in Turkmenistan can buy food at state shops, an affordable alternative to privately owned shops selling food at market prices. But supplies began to falter in 2015-2016, after the global decline in hydrocarbon prices started to hit Turkmenistan’s state budget.

The Turkmen government, one of the world’s most repressive and secretive, strictly controls citizens’ movements and communications, censors the media, and severely punishes critics. Although media inside the country do not report on the shortages, TIHR and other émigré-based sources, including the Amsterdam-based Turkmen News and the United States government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)’s Turkmen service (Azatlyk Radiosi) have covered them widely.

Human Rights Watch spoke with Turkmen citizens living abroad who had recently visited the country, and TIHR has spoken with numerous people inside the country about the situation. Their accounts were consistent with numerous reports in émigré outlets.

“Compared to a year ago, our family eats less,” a Turkmen father of eight told TIHR in July 2020. “That’s because we have less money, and [food] prices have gone up. We’ve had problems getting food due to the lines and the shortages.”

In November 2019, a student told Human Rights Watch that his family was spending 70 to 80 percent of their income on food, and a pensioner said her family was spending almost all their income on food. People interviewed said they spend several hours a day waiting in lines for subsidized food, and that the lines and unpredictability of food supply caused great stress.

Turkmenistan’s domestic food production only meets around 40 percent of national demand, the rest is imported. About 80 percent of imports come from Iran. Declining hydrocarbon income since 2014 and several poor harvests have constrained Turkmenistan’s food supplies. In early 2020, the supply of subsidized food began to falter to an even greater degree, in part due to the border closure with Iran.

At the same time, the global economic downturn threw many Turkmen out of work and slashed the foreign remittance incomes upon which many Turkmen families survived, and Covid-19 travel restrictions prevented people from traveling abroad for work. Meanwhile, prices in free market shops and bazaars skyrocketed. As a result, people in Turkmenistan faced even more uncertain, demeaning, and sometimes insurmountable obstacles to obtaining adequate food, Human Rights Watch and TIHR found.

The authorities strive to paint a rosy picture of living standards, claiming that the country is living in an “era of greatness and happiness” and frequently showing fully stockedorderly shops in state media. Police break up lines outside shops and force shoppers to wait by back doors, away from the street, where they would be visible. At the same time, the government indirectly recognized the food crisis, creating a commission in late March to support local producers and keep prices stable though price controls. But prices continued to rise through the summer.

The government has made no effort to provide direct assistance to, or even identify, low-income or otherwise disadvantaged segments of the population 
suffering the most from dwindling access to subsidized food and rising prices. On August 19, Human Rights Watch and TIHR sent a letter to the Turkmen government requesting information about its poverty estimates and policies for poverty alleviation and food security. They have not yet received a reply.

State food price subsidies, ostensibly provided to all citizens equally, have failed to increase the availability of food for economically vulnerable groups. Anecdotal reports suggest that access is at times influenced by personal connections, including buying in bulk for later resale. Some state stores, without warning, limit the hours during which ration book holders may make purchases, or insist that customers buy more expensive items as a condition for buying subsidized food. This further hinders access to basic foodstuffs for poorer Turkmen. Single pensioners and others without family support, unable to wait in long lines, may be particularly affected.

The government should consider other ways to protect people from food insecurity, TIHR and Human Rights Watch said. These include food voucher programs that allow people to purchase goods at private shops or the bazaar, or cash transfer programs to people with incomes below the minimum subsistence level for an adequate standard of living The government should also reassess the contribution which currency controls – limiting the ability to buy or sell foreign currency – have on the rising prices of imported foods and Turkmens’ capacity to purchase food, and make appropriate changes to help ensure availability of and access to affordable food.

“Rather than create policies to protect its citizens in this time of crisis, the government’s actions have further imperiled people’s ability to access food,” said Farid Tubatullin, director of TIHR. “Turkmenistan should immediately take stock of low-income individuals and their needs, and urgently expand food assistance.”

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