(New York) – 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 today. 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.”
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 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 stocked, orderly 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.”
For further details about the Human Rights Watch findings, please see below.
The Turkmen government tightly controls all aspects of public life and systematically denies freedoms of association, expression, and religion. The country is completely closed to all independent scrutiny, and the government does not tolerate independent civic activism. The few people who do human rights work do so under the radar and at great personal risk.
TIHR gathered information about food security through anonymous interviews its activists conducted inside the country. It drew on these interviews for its public reporting on this issue in the news website, Chronicles of Turkmenistan. Human Rights Watch interviewed five Turkmen who were outside the country, reviewed data published by the Turkmen government, various United Nations agencies, the Asian Development Bank, and the World Bank, and reviewed émigré publications that do regular, reliable reporting on developments in Turkmenistan. Full names of those interviewed were withheld for their security.
People in Turkmenistan, if they can afford it, purchase food at free market prices from private shops and bazaars where food supplies had been mostly stable before the pandemic. Those who cannot afford it turn to a network of Trade Ministry-run stores which offer certain basic, low-quality commodity foods, generally flour, bread, cottonseed and sunflower seed cooking oil, sugar, eggs, and frozen chicken, at highly subsidized prices. For example, a one-liter bottle of vegetable oil costs twice as much at the bazaar as at the state-subsidized price, and a kilogram of flour costs nearly seven times as much. Access to government stores is based on place of residence, and anyone with a residence permit for that area may shop there.
Faced with sudden supply constraints due to strict external border closures in response to the pandemic, privately owned shops dramatically hiked their market prices in March. In the past 12 months, the market price of flour rose by 50 percent and cooking oil by 130 percent. The border closures also resulted in some imported products, such as potatoes from neighboring Iran, disappearing entirely. Turkmenistan has denied having any cases of Covid-19, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
Business disruptions and job losses suddenly cut incomes for many, boosting the number of people needing subsidized food. The price of subsidized food in state shops remained relatively stable, but the supply dropped. State shops have struggled for years with decreasing food supplies, which have dwindled even further during the pandemic. Lines have grown longer, with fights and, in some cases, protests, sometimes breaking out. In an unprecedented public show of unrest in April, TIHR reported, dozens of women protested the lack of food in the southern province of Mary.
Waiting in Line
Aya, 60, a migrant worker outside of Turkmenistan, told Human Rights Watch in November 2019: “I should be retired already, taking care of my grandchildren. But I’m still here. Because there is no money [in Turkmenistan]! Almost all of our money goes to food. I send home US$100 per month, but it’s not enough. Two or three years ago, it was enough.” She and her husband’s pensions just cover the household utility bills.
Standing in line is often onerous. “Our mother is the one who waits in lines at the state stores,” said Sapar, a father of 8. “She gets up every day between 4 and 6 a.m. and goes to stand in line … someone else may come to relieve her closer to the time the store opens. Lines may be 3 to 4 hours long until it’s your turn.”
“The most important are the lines for bread. Bread is very expensive at the bazaar: 4-5 manat [approximately $1.14], and it’s 2 manat in the state store,” Aya said. “My husband is 62. He waits in the lines for bread, waits 1 or 2 hours.”
A Turkmen student studying abroad said: “Most people are waiting [in lines] starting at 3 a.m.; the stores open at 7.… Most are living in poor conditions and so they have no alternatives.”
This student’s combined family income allowed them, at the end of 2019, to buy food at bazaars and private shops; he estimated that his family spent 70 to 80 percent of the household budget on food. Data that the government provided in a report to the UN stated that average monthly individual wage in 2018 was 1,570 manat. But a retired diplomat who served in Turkmenistan and closely followed the country’s food situation said that he estimated that before 2019, 85 percent of the population survived on $2,000 annually per person, 7,000 manat at the official rate, or about 600 manat a month.
The student’s neighbors are among those with much more limited means, with funds sufficient only for subsidized food in state stores:
Do shops run out? It happens very often [that] three to four hours after opening there is nothing left. The stores sell out quickly. My neighbor is in that situation [remaining empty-handed] when the stores run out of food.
Nearly every other time we go to the store it happens that our turn comes and we can’t buy what we had intended because it’s run out. This is because there are only small quantities sold in the state stores and they are finished after an hour or two. There’s not enough, even for people who lined up early in the morning. If [the items] haven’t run out, then you can buy something, but if [they’ve run out], then you go home empty-handed. If you have money, then you can get them at the market price. The bazaar and the private shops always have the same items, but they are two to three times more expensive.
TIHR, together with media outlets Turkmen News and Azadlyk Radiosi, have monitored food availability in Turkmenistan’s regions in recent years. They report that staple foods periodically have not been available in state stores in various regions since 2016. Eggs and frozen chicken are frequently not available. In mid-2020, sources reported that chicken is available only at private shops. Other goods such as cooking oil, bread, and flour have also been unavailable for periods in various regions.
Food Rationing Not a Guarantee of Food Security
In June, four of the country’s five provinces imposed limits on how much each person could buy, enforced by ration books issued by local officials based on residency permits. Though the capital, Ashgabat, and the surrounding Ahal Province have not yet introduced formal rationing, other measures limit amounts per customer. On March 28, state stores temporarily placed a monetary ceiling on purchases, ranging from 40 to 80 manat ($11.40 to $22.80 at the official exchange rate) and required all transactions to be with state bank cards. Both requirements were lifted in Ashgabat by late summer.
Even with rationing, people reported being unable to obtain allotted amounts of staple foods. Under previous rationing schemes, rationed quantities, even when accessible, are often not enough to feed a family and far from nutritionally adequate. In some areas, the flour ration was cut from five to three kilos per month, and there are reports in some areas that it was one kilogram per month – when it was available at all.
A woman Human Rights Watch interviewed last November said that the only subsidized food items available in her family’s rural town were bread, cottonseed oil, and salt. Sources in the capital have noted increasing numbers of people begging for money or food in the streets, as well as greater numbers of individuals and families with children combing through dumpsters for scraps and recyclables.
Even when subsidized food is available, state stores sometimes arbitrarily restrict purchases. In one province, people have reported that shop workers randomly and without warning limit store hours. In some cases, if residents do not manage to purchase their monthly allotment before the end of the month, they were no longer eligible for that month’s allotment. In Ashgabat, observers have recently reported shoppers being forced to buy unwanted goods that they may not be able to afford, such as expensive rice or bottled water, at elevated prices to be allowed purchase staples such as cooking oil at the subsidized price. Local authorities have imposed various burdensome paperwork requirements to obtain subsidized goods, including additional certificates from local housing committees on the number of persons living in a household. An investigation in Balkanabad province found that shop employees routinely cheat customers by dispensing smaller volumes of dry staple goods than set out in regulations. Turkmen News said that the authorities have reacted to complaints by dismissing some store workers and increasing rations.
Government Denial, Inadequate Data, and Failure to Address Poverty and Food Needs
The corruption watchdog Global Witness, Radio Liberty, and Turkmen News have all reported on the secrecy surrounding Turkmenistan’s economy, on large-scale corruption, and on billions in unaccountable funds allegedly stashed abroad. The government has spent lavishly on vanity construction projects and international sporting competitions in recent years.
Turkmenistan covers up the existence of poverty within its borders. It is unclear whether the government has established a national subsistence level. The government declines to release figures on either the number of people living below a national subsistence level, if it exists, or the international standard of $1.90 per day. In 2018, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific estimated that 21.8 percent of Turkmenistan’s population live below the national poverty line, although the report did not provide the poverty line figure or its source.
A 2017-2019 World Bank project provided technical assistance to Turkmenistan on measuring social welfare. The government refused to share any of the data generated by the pilot study with the bank. The bank concluded that it could not assess whether the project furthered the goal of reducing poverty, and that without greater openness and transparency, Turkmenistan would not be able to develop data-driven responses to poverty.
Although the Turkmen government has no discernable anti-poverty program, according to its 2019 submission to the UN in connection with the Sustainable Development Goals, the state provides “social transfers and assistance to incapacitated persons, elderly persons living alone, people with disabilities, families with children and other persons through provision of monetary payments” and various services. Human Rights Watch and TIHR are not in a position to assess the adequacy of these services or the degree to which they impact food security.
International financial institutions have, since 2012, classified Turkmenistan as an upper-middle income country, based on data provided by the government. A diplomat and a staff member with a multilateral agency told Human Rights Watch that government economic data was notoriously unreliable, a view shared by an economist who specializes in the Central Eurasia region. The United Kingdom Department for International Trade has also stated that “no reliable economic data are published in Turkmenistan” and that figures it releases to international financial institutions “do not always square with observations on the ground.”
According to the 2019 UN Development Programme Human Development Report, calculated on the basis of government-supplied statistics, only 0.4 percent of Turkmenistan’s population lives in multidimensional poverty, which incorporates 10 indicators in the categories of health, education, and standard of living. Turkmenistan’s 2019 voluntary review of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does not provide chapters on the goals of eliminating poverty and hunger. The chapter on reducing inequality states that state social transfers accounted for 12.7 percent of the income of the country’s “most disadvantaged households,” including people with disabilities, older people living alone, etc.
Nonetheless, some statistical evidence of malnourishment exists. The Asian Development Bank, using UN statistics, reports that 11.5 percent of Turkmenistan’s children under age 5 suffered from stunting as of 2015.
Turkmenistan also failed to report the number of food-insecure citizens to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for a 2019 report. The number suffering undernourishment in 2016-2018 is listed in the report as 300,000, or 5.4 percent of the population. However, the FAO report does note that in 2015-2017, the last years that data were gathered for the report, Turkmenistan was among the commodity-dependent countries facing economic factors that can indicate the prevalence of undernourishment is increasing: high food prices, growing unemployment, and loss of income.
According to World Bank data, unemployment has been officially pegged for a decade at four percent or just under, although independent media have cited estimates as high as 60 percent in 2020. Reflecting official Turkmenistan government statistics, the UN World Food Programme’s 2018 Hunger Map puts Turkmenistan in the “Moderately Low” category for presence of hunger, from 5 to 14.9 percent, equal to its neighbors Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Population movement, however, strongly belies the official government picture. Radio Azatlyk, citing unnamed government sources, reported that emigration has led to a decline in Turkmenistan’s population by almost 1.9 million people, or about 30 percent, between 2008 and 2018, whereas official figures still insist that the population is 5.8 million. In addition to permanent emigration, thousands of Turkmen citizens, from 11 to 16 percent of the current working-age population by some estimates, have migrated for temporary jobs abroad, most of them to Turkey. The Turkish migration service has registered 25,000, but many times that are said to be living and working undocumented.
External Pressures, State Policies Increase Vulnerability
Natural gas provides the main source of revenue in Turkmenistan’s economy. In 2014, before the dramatic drop in the price of natural gas, according to one study, Turkmenistan depended on “revenue from the gas sector for 35 percent of GDP, 90 percent of total exports, and 80 percent of fiscal revenues.” According to Luca Anceschi, Senior Lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow, “in the last four to five years, the non-gas sector of the economy shrank faster than Turkmenistan’s natural gas, with devastating impacts on the economy at large.”
Turkmenistan’s food crisis began to accelerate in 2015-2016, set off by the 2014 drop in natural gas prices, Russia’s sudden suspension of gas purchases, and a price dispute with Iran, another major purchaser. With its earnings cut, the government responded by limiting food imports. It also restricted open conversions of the manat, forcing traders to buy hard currency on the black market at a rate five times the official rate.
After a series of poor domestic harvests, the government purchased grain from neighboring Kazakhstan, but consumer prices for flour still rose unsustainably for many. According to Agriculture and Water Ministry data that TIHR was able to unofficially obtain, the 2018 grain harvest totaled less than one-third the officially claimed figure of 1.6 million tons, with 30 percent unfit for consumption. To supplement export revenues, the government also began to cut acreage planted under wheat in favor of sowing more cotton, further curtailing the potential domestic food supply.
The government claimed to be pursuing a policy of strict import substitution to curb expenditures and achieve food self-sufficiency, but has not yet seen hoped-for results in increased domestic production. The Economist Intelligence Unit reported a 37 percent overall drop in imports in 2018, and a similar drop the following year. With imports intentionally cut and domestic production lagging, supplies of food in state subsidized shops grew spotty. RFE/RL reported severe shortages of bread and flour beginning December 2017 in rural areas, recurring in 2018-2019, and eventually extending to the capital. These steady shortfalls have gradually worsened before reaching a crisis point in spring 2020 with the imposition of formal rationing.
As supplies of subsidized food shrank and market prices rose, other measures further exacerbated people’s economic desperation, and, potentially, their ability to buy enough food to feed their families. In 2019, the government ended subsidies for utility payments, except for people with serious disabilities, adding fees for electricity, gas, and water to already straining household budgets. The World Bank acknowledged that this step would, without mitigation measures, hurt the “household welfare … of the poor or bottom 40 percent of the population.”
New currency controls further weakened purchasing power. Many Turkmen depend on remittance payments from relatives abroad. But to preserve hard currency, in 2018, the government mandated that cash transfer companies not pay out those remittances in dollars or euros, but in the state currency, manats, calculated at the official exchange rate of 3.5 per USD. With hard currency in hand, citizens could purchase manat at a far higher black market rate, which hovered, in 2019, around 18.5, and in mid-July 2020, at 24. Thus, the value of support from abroad was drastically cut. The International Organization for Migration estimated in 2014 that Turkmen migrant laborers sent $30 million to the country, but by 2016, the International Monetary Fund estimated a decline to about $16 million, and to $1 million in 2019.
The remittance payments themselves are evaporating due to the Covid-19 economic downturn across the globe. The World Bank projected that Central Asia would be particularly hard hit by a decline in remittances, projected to reach 27.5 percent in the region. The Asian Development Bank concluded that “remittance-dependent households in developing countries will likely be hit hard and their capacity to secure affordable food and basic nutrition compromised.”
Currency limitations extend to manat as well, as Ashgabat residents currently report finding it increasingly difficult to withdraw cash from their own accounts at bank machines, with lines forming early in the morning. Without cash, even those with means cannot make purchases at private shops and markets that do not accept bank card payments. Starting on September 8, in at least one region, one bank introduced vouchers for obtaining cash from cash machines.
In an August 19 letter, Human Rights Watch and TIHR asked the government for information on whether the authorities considered the impact import substitution, currency controls, and the like would have on food security for people living on lower incomes, and whether the authorities made any efforts to mitigate the impact of these measures. The government has not yet responded.
The Right to Food and Turkmenistan’s International Obligations
The right to food is recognized in international human rights law, on its own, and as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living. Art. 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which Turkmenistan has been a party since 1997, explicitly requires the government to ensure that everyone is “free from hunger.” However, the minimum core obligation to ensure an adequate standard of living also requires governments to ensure access to nutritionally adequate and safe food.
The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has described the realization of the right to food as a state in which “every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical or economic access at all times to adequate food or the means for its procurement.” This means that the government should facilitate people’s ability to get food with dignity and provide food through assistance programs or a safety net, if people are unable to get food without such support. In times of crisis, the government needs to take all available measures to maintain access to sufficient food and take into account the situation of impoverished or otherwise disadvantaged groups.
Turkmenistan also has obligations to respect the right to food, as a party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child since September 1993, the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, since May 1997, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, since September 2008. Turkmenistan’s constitution in art. 25 ostensibly protects citizens’ and residents’ rights “in accordance with the universally recognized norms of international law.”