Price Rises Hit Turkmen Postal Service

Many can no longer afford to send mail due to rising costs following currency change.

Price Rises Hit Turkmen Postal Service

Many can no longer afford to send mail due to rising costs following currency change.

Friday, 13 March, 2009
The soaring cost of postal deliveries in Turkmenistan following the redenomination of the national currency in January has made sending mail unaffordable for many.

A post office worker in the capital Ashgabat said that in January, she noted a five-fold drop in the number of parcels sent abroad during her shift.

The postal worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said she handled only 46 deliveries during, as opposed to the 250 to 350 she normally processes.

The rise in prices follows the redenomination of the Turkmen national currency, the manat, on January 1. The new banknotes have a face value of one manat to 5,000 in the old currency.

The redenomination was carried out to create a more realistic exchange rate. It did away with the old system where the official rate was fixed at 5,250 manat to the US dollar, contrasting sharply with the black market, where the manat was worth far less. Before January, it was almost impossible to buy currency at the official rate and people used the parallel rate when buying and selling notes. Among themselves, the banks used a third rate, the “commercial rate”, set at 14,250 to the dollar.

The new manat is pegged at an exchange rate of 2.85 to the dollar that works out exactly the same as the commercial rate in old notes.

Even though the transition is a gradual one, and both old and new banknotes will be accepted as legal tender throughout 2009, people feared redenomination would lead to a surge in inflation.

They have been proved right when it comes to postal charges. To coincide with the redenomination, the post office introduced new prices for all services set at the new exchange rate (or in old notes, the commercial rate).

Before January, it cost 100,000 manats, or seven dollars at the US) to send a parcel weighing two kilogrammes. It now costs three times as much – 300,000 old or 60 new manats – to send the same kind of package. The price of sending a letter abroad has gone up from the equivalent of 38 to 85 cents.

The spike in the price of postal services has been particularly felt by those with relatives abroad.

Many people in Turkmenistan have family members in Russia, who have either emigrated permanently or are studying there temporarily. The country also has a sizable Uzbek community, many of whom have relatives living across the border in Uzbekistan.

For these people, the high costs of phone calls, internet and air travel meant that sending letters and parcels was the only way they could afford to stay in touch.

The higher prices have meant that some have now had to curb communication with their families.

A pensioner from Mary in southeast Turkmenistan told IWPR, “My pension is 42 dollars [monthly], which is just about enough to make ends meet. Three of my grown-up grandchildren and two close friends live in Russia. Before, I used to exchange letters with them regularly, and send postcards for holidays and birthdays.

“Now that a letter costs almost a dollar to send, I don’t write much.”

Parents whose children have gone abroad to study also find themselves in a difficult situation.

Oguljamal, who works in a chemist’s shop in the eastern city of Turkmenabad, has a son living in Turkey.

“My son asked me to send him warm clothes and several dictionaries. I had to pay 53 dollars for a parcel weighing five kilos. That’s exactly one third of my salary,” said Oguljamal.

“Last year, we regularly sent him parcels – at least two or three times a month. With the new prices, sending even one parcel puts a dent in your budget.”

People say the steep rise in prices has not led to an improvement in postal services.

Although the communications ministry recently announced that services were being improved, residents of the country say this is far from the truth.

They complain about the speed of delivery and about the fact that parcels appear to have been tampered with when they arrive.

“My sister [in Uzbekistan] sent me a parcel. It takes only ten hours to travel to where she lives, but the parcel took two months to arrive,” said Begench, a driver from Ashgabat. “The packaging had been torn apart, the contents mixed up, and boxes containing chocolate and biscuits had been opened.”

Begench said a postal worker told him the parcel had gone through customs.

“They say this is how parcels come from customs. I was then made to pay three manats of customs duty,” he said.

Others say the service has become even more unreliable of late.

“I often used to receive small parcels from relatives and friends living abroad. Nothing valuable – souvenirs, sweets, sometimes cookbooks,” said a chef at a cafe in Ashgabat.

But over the last three months, only three out of the seven parcels sent to him have arrived, he complained.

“Delivery speed is the biggest problem with our post – not only for parcels, but also for letters. It takes one and a half or two months at least [for these to arrive],” said Turkmenabat resident Mered.

According to Mered, postal workers said this was because customs officers held on to incoming mail for so long.

A former communications ministry official acknowledged the postal service was in disarray.

“The current dismal state of postal system clearly reflects two facts – the weak development of the overall infrastructure in the country, as well as the state’s desire to exercise total control over all kinds of contact and communications between its citizens and the outside world,” he said.

Maksat Alikperov is the pseudonym of a journalist from Turkmenistan.

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