Ashgabat, The Forbidden City

To outsiders, Turkmenistan's capital has long had a reputation as a difficult-to-reach destination.

But it's also gotten tougher lately for many of the country's own citizens.

The website Hronika Turkmenistana reported on February 21 that authorities "are not permitting vehicles from the regions into Ashgabat."

There has been no government word of any ban on nonlocals entering the nation's capital. But in fact, it has been in effect -- even if irregularly enforced -- for nearly three years.

Hronika Turkmenistana reported that a group of drivers (most of them from the Mary and Lebap Provinces) was awaiting passengers on February 17 in a parking lot in Annau, along the M37 highway some 5 kilometers from the eastern edge of Ashgabat, when traffic police appeared and fined them for having "entered restricted territory...for transport [or vehicles] from other cities." The police explained that the "restricted area" for vehicles without Ashgabat license plates extends 25 kilometers outside the city limits.

Hronika Turkmenistana reported that police have now established a checkpoint in the town of Gyaurs, 25 kilometers southeast of Ashgabat, where vehicles from outside the capital are turned away.

Even without official comment from the Turkmen government, it's easy to guess at the reasons. One need only look at recent economic reports -- particularly from the regions -- to understand why people might want to reach the capital and why the government might be reluctant to see them there.

The government continues to deny there is an economic crisis in Turkmenistan, but the signs are there.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service -- known locally as Azatlyk -- and others have reported on the country's unemployment problem. It's another topic the government generally doesn't comment on, but the figure is believed to be well over 50 percent of the workforce.

People from outlying regions tend to gravitate toward big urban areas in hard economic times. Big cities and towns offer more opportunities for employment, and in Ashgabat's case there was some truth to that in the run-up to the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games that Turkmenistan (AIMAG) hosted in September 2017. Thousands of workers were needed for construction of the facilities for AIMAG. But while some people from the regions were able to find employment at the time, Ashgabat city officials insisted that they find accommodation on the outskirts of the capital and, once the work was done, they were expected to return home.

Basic goods -- flour, bread, sugar, and cooking oil among them -- have been in short supply for three years. The regions have reportedly been the hardest hit.

In early December, the government in Ashgabat told regional administrations they would have to fend for themselves for funds. Azatlyk reported at the time that traffic police in the regions, for example, stepped up vehicle stops and fines to motorists for a wide assortment of reasons.

Regional administrations were reportedly already experiencing difficulties dealing with the deteriorating economic situation.

In August, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov reprimanded four provincial leaders for failure to collect sufficient taxes for local budgets.

Azatlyk has been reporting about shortages of flour in the especially hard-hit Dashoguz and Lebap Provinces and bread rationing in Mary Province.

The heads of all three of those provinces were reportedly told at that time to do what they could to meet their provinces' needs. The government reportedly made supplying the Ahal Province, where Ashgabat is located, and the Balkan Province, where Turkmenistan's Caspian coast is located, a priority.

So besides coming to Ashgabat to look for work, some people seem to be coming to buy goods that are in short supply or unavailable in their areas. And authorities seem to have figured this out. Azatlyk reported toward the end of 2018 that traffic police with sniffer dogs on the outskirts of the Turkmen capital were stopping vehicles with license plates from the regions that were leaving the Ashgabat area.

Police searched vehicles for food and confiscated what they considered excessive.

Even in Ashgabat, there is not an abundance of food except among those with enough money to shop in the few well-stocked, but expensive, private stores.

Enormous resources have been poured into Ashgabat in the past 25 years, certainly into the Ashgabat city center. The Turkmen capital is on the Guinness List Of World Records for the world's highest density of white marble-clad buildings. There are fountains, ornate monuments, an ice-skating rink and, of course, museums, and even an amusement park.

But few are currently able to see these wonders, and that now appears to include most of Turkmenistan's residents.

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.