CITIZENS of Turkmenistan are definitely allowed to leave the country, its immigration service insisted in a statement in mid-April. The declaration came in response to reports that men under the age of 30 were being prevented from boarding international flights. But in recent weeks reports have begun emerging again of men as old as 40 not being allowed to travel abroad. The authorities are so desperate to stem emigration, it seems, that they are simply stopping their countrymen from getting on planes.
With the world’s fourth-largest gas reserves and a population of just 5m, Turkmenistan should be prosperous. But its rulers have fallen out with both Iran and Russia, leaving China as their sole customer for gas. Much of the revenue from sales to China goes towards repaying the loans taken out to build the pipeline through which the gas flows. Some of the rest has been squandered on white elephants, such as a vast, empty, falcon-shaped airport and a ritzy but ghostly beach resort on the Caspian Sea. And a good chunk of the money has been stashed away abroad. Data from the Bank for International Settlements show that $23bn from Turkmenistan has accumulated in accounts in Germany, although the data do not reveal who the account-holders are.
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Back home, the economy is in crisis. The government fixes the exchange rate of the local currency, the manat, at 3.5 to the dollar. The black-market rate, however, is closer to 25. To maintain this regime, the government has resorted to strict currency controls, including severe restrictions on international transfers. The amount Turkmen citizens abroad can withdraw from their bank accounts at home via cashpoint machines—the only way to benefit from the official exchange rate—is limited to as little as $12 a day.
The shortage of foreign currency prevents firms from importing much, which has sparked inflation. There are long queues for food at state-owned supermarkets, where prices are fixed. Cashiers demand identification to confirm that buyers live in the area. For foreign firms, the hard-currency drought makes collecting payments difficult and repatriating profits almost impossible. Reuters, a news agency, reported in June that Turkish companies operating in Turkmenistan on government contracts have not been paid in years.
The government has also resorted to layoffs, even in the all-important gas industry, to make ends meet. Foreign analysts estimate unemployment to be 50-60%, with many Turkmen doing odd jobs, such as driving taxis, to scrape together a livelihood. The underpaid police have found a way to capitalise on this trend, by levying fines on anyone driving a dirty car. No wonder hungry, jobless Turkmen are trying their luck elsewhere—or would be, if the government would let them.