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Smoke screen: Truth and Tobacco in Turkmenistan

  Data

A forest of marble and gold
A forest of marble and gold
A typical Ashgabat street
A typical Ashgabat street
Data collection here is a walk in the park
Data collection here is a walk in the park
Domes of government buildings
Domes of government buildings
Even street lights have an air of opulence
Even street lights have an air of opulence
Fruit and veg at the Russian Market
Fruit and veg at the Russian Market
Inside Ashgabat's Russian Market
Inside Ashgabat's Russian Market
Monument to Akhal Teke - the national horse breed
Monument to Akhal Teke - the national horse breed
Mr President
Mr President
Perhaps the busiest street I saw
Perhaps the busiest street I saw
The Turkmenistan national flag
The Turkmenistan national flag
This isn't even the full team of statue cleaners
This isn't even the full team of statue cleaners

I walked down a dimly lit street in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, trying to remember the directions the staff from my hotel had given me, and saw a light coming from an alleyway. It didn’t look like much, but the street ahead offered even fewer signs of activity and this seemed to be the location described, so I tentatively entered.

Peering around the corner I found it was indeed a shop of sorts; a small room with a teenager standing behind a counter, boxes of crisps stacked beside him, some chocolate bars laid out in front and just enough space for me to step inside. 

I was in Turkmenistan for a data collection trip in late 2016, where earlier that year it had been widely reported that Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berhimuhamedow had banned the sale of all tobacco products as part of his broader drive for Turkmen citizens to live a healthier lifestyle.

I read online that the ban was lifted shortly before my trip but reliable information was hard to come by, so on arrival I made it a priority to ask the hotel staff about cigarettes. Their response was initially evasive – “There is a place, but… maybe you shouldn’t go. If you want cigarettes I can call my friend!” – but eventually I had persuaded them, and here I was.  

“Do you have any cigarettes?” I asked.

My lack of Turkmen or Russian language skills seemed to be no obstacle, as the teenager reached under the counter and pulled out a pack of Marlboro, typed on a calculator and turned the screen to face me: 80.

I looked at it, confused – 80 manat (TMT)? Perhaps I had misunderstood the exchange rate; that price was equivalent to about £20. Sensing reluctance, he opened the packet, pulled out a single cigarette, and typed again: 5. Five manat (or just over a pound) for one cigarette.

Later that day, I made more sense of the situation: cigarettes are no longer banned but, officially, they are only available in state-run shops, sold at fixed prices of 19 or 20 TMT. In practice, imports are so limited that these shops frequently run out of stock, which has led to a booming black market with spiralling prices, and to this offer of a single, illegal, Marlboro for five manat.

I heard that people often queue outside the state shops from 6am waiting for them to open in order to secure affordable cigarettes, but did not witness this for myself. When I visited the nearest state-run shop, staff told me they had not had any cigarettes for three days and could not confirm when more would be delivered. I tried multiple times but left Ashgabat without seeing a single pack of legal cigarettes.

This small example hints at one of the challenges International Data Researchers can encounter when assessing the cost of living in certain less-developed countries. Even in person, determining the legality of cigarettes was not straightforward, let alone checking the price and brands available, and this is only one of 163 items in ECA’s current Cost of Living basket! But challenges like this are where our training and experience prove useful, enabling us to enquire in the right places, using initiative (and perseverance!) to source information that will provide an accurate picture of the environment that we are in.

In 2016, Turkmenistan was rated as having the third worst press freedom in the world by Reporters Without Borders, ranking behind only North Korea and Eritrea. In this situation, finding reliable information about anything can be difficult, which emphasises the value of organisations like ECA International – where we use a team of experienced data researchers to coordinate and conduct research trips, as well as first-hand accounts from expatriates, rather than relying solely on third-party information which may be biased and misleading.

Ashgabat is a spectacular city, noted by Guinness World Records as having the most marble-clad buildings in the world. It is an amazing place to walk around but I could not help feeling a slight unease at the empty streets, the excess, and the too-perfect white gleam of almost every surface.

One symptom that suggests all is not well – or at least not as well as the marble implies – is the existence of a currency black market. The official exchange rate is fixed at 3.5 TMT to the US dollar, but over the last year, the true value of the manat has slipped and at the time of my visit was unofficially trading at close to 6 TMT to the dollar. This appears to be driving inflation on some imported goods; I found that some electronic items, for example, had very high prices that were more in line with a reasonable dollar price using the unofficial exchange rate. 

Prior to researching the trip, my knowledge of Turkmenistan was limited to a few bizarre stories about their late President Niyazov, who encouraged a ‘cult of personality’ through such actions as changing the national anthem to include frequent references to himself, building statues of himself throughout the city, and renaming the months – January was named after himself and April after his mother. Among other things, he was also reported at times to have banned dogs, lip-synching and gold teeth.

As with North Korea, it is easy to laugh at these wacky stories, but focussing on such peculiar behaviour risks forgetting that this is real life and there are real people living (and dying) with the consequences of such governance - for whom the humour is minimal.

Niyazov died in 2006 and there was some hope that his successor Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow would move towards a more transparent government, but initial positive changes appear to have been largely superficial and temporary: the most recent election in February of this year saw him re-elected with a remarkable 97% of the vote…

When reading about these issues, it is easy to imagine an entire country existing in a constant state of fear and misery; that one would step out of the airport into a fog of oppression, met by insular and suspicious people.

This was not the case. On arrival, I was met, like anywhere else, by taxi drivers hoping to make some money. In supermarkets, people did their best to help me as I struggled to pronounce the Russian for ‘canned soup’, and, like most places, those who spoke English were curious and pleased to meet me.

When visiting somewhere you expect to be strange and different, it can seem almost surprising that normal things happen at all, but of course they do most of the time. In Turkmenistan, like anywhere, day-to-day life is lived by ordinary people doing ordinary things.

  FIND OUT MORE

ECA publishes Cost of Living data for more than 460 cities around the world. It is available from ECA in several forms: as part of subscription in a calculator which allows you to experiment with different types of index and review the outputs; in reports, providing background detail for specific indices; and as part of the Build-up Calculator for performing balance-sheet calculations. Cost of living data is also pre-populated in ECAEnterprise, our Assignment Management System, and in our Net-to-Net Calculator.

  Please contact us to speak to a member of our team directly.

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