Throughout the former Soviet world, New Year’s is the time when Santa Claus – or Father Frost as he’s known in the Russian-speaking tradition – hands out presents. This year, Turkmenistan’s president played the role himself and gave his people the gift of cheap meat.
Freebies subsidized by the country’s natural-gas-generated revenues have long been a fixture of life in the country. For more than 10 years, Turkmens have received free water, household gas and rations of salt.
And now, in anticipation of 2013, butchers in Ashgabat have been selling 1 kilogram of meat for about $3.50 – that’s $2.50 lower than the normal price – triggering much excitement among buyers.
The government is in a constant battle with vendors over meat prices. Official prices shown in displays stand at $4.20 per kilo, although the real cost to buyers is actually $6. In food markets, as with the exchange rate for the Turkmen manat, there are often major discrepancies between official and real-life figures.
The meat discount follows an edict last week issued by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. In a Cabinet meeting on December 28, he instructed officials, including the trade minister and Ashgabat mayor, to “provide the capital and the regions with all required foodstuffs” to ensure the people of Turkmenistan spend their holidays in an upbeat mood.
For all the war-economy flavor of the injunction, the news was greeted with a surge of enthusiasm in Ashgabat.
On the morning of Saturday, December 29, the entrance was barred to the meat section at the city’s Tekinsky Bazaar, which led to the formation of a long line. That in turn drew unwanted attention from passersby.
An official in government-issue black coat and hat sought to calm hopeful customers. “Please wait a little, we will open soon,” he said.
Once the doors opened, customers poured in, rushing to get their hands on the finest and largest cuts.
Such was the rush that the sellers indiscriminately stuffed everything they could into the packages they sold, including pieces of fat, heart, kidney, liver, lung, and shards of bone. Most shoppers grabbed the meat without protest, but one man in his fifties did raise objections.
“You don’t like it, don’t take it,” one salesperson called Aman told the man, putting the package back in the display.
Others were more sanguine over the amount of waste meat being shoved their way.
“It’s a good thing I have a dog. She’ll eat anything,” said one clearly happy customer, Sergei.
Authorities have, as ever, been at pains to put a bright gloss on preparations for the holiday season. Salaries and bonuses were paid ahead of time this year, while television news showed markets brimming with foodstuffs.
The buoyant mood is expected to carry into 2013.
Berdymukhamedov said in a major speech in October that salaries were set to rise by 10 percent and pensions by 15 percent in the coming year. That nominally outstrips the headline rate of inflation, which the International Monetary Fund estimates hit 5.6 percent in 2011. There is evidence, however, that rising salaries simply push up market prices.
Normal meat prices will in any case resume in the coming days. Market traders at Tekinsky Bazaar said instructions had only been issued for reduced prices to last until the New Year.
Elsewhere, the excitement quickly gave way to familiar frustration.
At another market in the city center, Gulistan, cheap meat had already sold out by lunchtime Saturday. Around 100 people nonetheless hung around hopefully.
“We have already been waiting an hour, and still no sign of meat in this era of power and happiness,” said Selby, a shopper in her early 40s, referring derisively to the official designation of Berdymukhamedov’s era of rule.
Another shopper who had come from Dashoguz Market in eastern Ashgabat said traders there had limited sale of meat to 3 kilos per person.
“And to buy it, you need to wait in line for at least an hour,” said 62-year-old retiree Oraz.
By the following day, there was already no cheap meat on display at the Tekinsky Bazaar.
“Rather than buying some cheap meat with offal, it is better to buy goods that may be twice the price, but that are quality and not weighed down with off-cuts,” said shopper Svetlana.
Still, in the final hours of 2012, some still stood in Ashgabat's markets hoping for one last bargain.