The honeymoon appears to be over for Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. After raising gasoline prices in a painful move toward liberalizing the economy, the 50-year-old leader faces an angry public at home, one year into his first term.
The Turkmen people are known for being patient. Decades of dictatorship and isolation has a way of doing that. So reports that some Turkmen reacted to higher prices at the pump by torching gasoline stations came as something of a surprise, to say the least.
As bizarre as Turkmenistan was under the late President Sapamurat Niyazov, it was not without its perks. Gas, water, electricity, and salt were all offered free of charge. In 1992, Niyazov aruged that as the country had vast natural resources and would make huge profits from natural-gas exports, the Turkmen people should enjoy the fruits of independence from the Soviet Union.
But under Niyazov, people enjoyed very little. Which is why many of them are now seething over the February 8 decree by Berdymukhammedov that raised prices on gasoline -- and provided as clear a glimpse as any into the challenges facing the president should he decide to further liberalize the state-dominated economy.
More Than Just Gas
"In the Mary region, two petrol stations were set on fire," a woman from Mary Province tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, adding that anger and despair prompted people to set gas stations on fire. "Before the price hike, there were huge crowds of people at petrol stations. They were waiting in long queues day and night to buy gasoline [before the price hike]."
Gasoline had long been affordable for Turkmen, whose country is rich in hydrocarbons. Until last week, a liter of gasoline cost about as much as a loaf of cheap bread.
Now, under the new system, drivers can claim coupons for 120 liters of free gas per month. Drivers of trucks and buses get 200 liters and motorcycle owners 40 liters. But there's a catch. Gas purchased above the monthly limit will be sold at around $0.60 per liter, compared to the previous rate of $0.08 per liter.
That's a huge increase anywhere, but particularly painful in a country whose average monthly salary is $50. The increased price has also led to higher public transport fares and brought price hikes among foodstuffs.
Bus fares have reportedly increased from 5,000 to 10,000 manats, or from $1 to $2, according to the official exchange rate.
"Since the petrol price hike, prices for other goods have also been on the rise," says the woman from Mary Province. "Everything is more expensive now in bazaars: Eggs cost 1,700 manats, and a kilogram of chicken thighs is 37,000 manats."
She says "there is panic among people" and "crowds and queues at petrol stations."
'Nothing But Suffering'
While the move has been a shock to the Turkmen people, it's also arguably the first unpopular decision by Berdymukhammedov. His previous moves had been popular, including restoring pensions abolished by Niyazov and allowing the opera, ballet, and circus to return to the Turkmen stage.
The government's decision to compensate for the gas price hike by allocating a free quota of petrol appears not to have cushioned the blow.
Gurbandurdy Durdikuliev, a civil activist from Balkan Province, says the government's latest move has brought "nothing but suffering."
He complains that car owners receive gasoline rations for one vehicle, no matter how many automobiles they have, and says there are "long lines" at the state's Daikhan Bank, which is reportedly the only entity that is authorized to issue the ration coupons. He also notes that drivers must get their technical inspections and registrations in order or they are not entitled to the gasoline rations.
"It is nothing but a headache for people," he says. "They complain. They are not happy. I believe people's lives have gotten worse."
Durdikuliev predicts that the new procedures will lead to increased corruption among road police and bank officials.
Exiled Turkmen opposition leades have also criticized Berdymukhammedov's gasoline policy. Chary Charyev, an opposition activist, wrote on the Turkmen opposition website "Turkmenskaya Iskra" on February 11 that the free gas allowance is "free cheese in [Berdymukhammedov's] mousetrap" and claimed that "no one was happy" about it.
But economic liberalization, as other post-Soviet states know all too well, might also be a painful first step toward adopting a market economy. Advocates of such steps argue that, in the long run, they can usher in greater freedom and prosperity. Whether Berdymukhammedov intends to push further in this direction is unclear, but some economists argue that he had little choice but to increase gasoline prices that have long lagged behind world rates.
"The previous Turkmen leadership [under Niyazov] set most prices without taking into account economic conditions -- they simply made popular decisions," says Murad Esenov, editor in chief of the Sweden-based "Central Asia and the Caucasus" journal, noting that the prices of essentials like flour, fuel, and electricity were far below market rates. "Those who worked in the energy sector or agriculture had virtually no profit from the sale of their products. So purely from an economic point of view, the current revision of prices is a very good economic decision."
Esenov says unpopular moves like raising prices always have negative consequences, adding that the Turkmen government should increase social security measures to protect people from poverty.
"There's no other way in economics," he says.
RFE/RLs Turkmen Service contributed to this report