By Farangis Najibullah
For many families in Tajikistan, the traditional breakfast consists of bread, tea, and sugar. Now, even putting such modest fare on the table has become prohibitive, with food prices soaring by up to 30 percent in the last month.
Rising food prices is a global phenomenon that is caused by a variety of factors and leads states to take a number of approaches in the search for a solution. Tajikistan blames the latest price hikes on an increase in the price of fuel, which went up after Russia raised its tariffs on oil exported to Tajikistan by more than 5 percent. The country receives most of its petroleum products from Russia.
"Skyrocketing food prices mean people have to cut down on literally everything else," says Talab Mirzoev, an office worker in the capital, Dushanbe.
Rising food prices often spark fears of social unrest. In Tajikistan, that is not the case -- there are few signs that criticisms being expressed will grow into outright public protests, but it is clear that the price hikes have left already impoverished Tajiks increasingly frustrated and angry.
Mirzoev, for example, brings in a monthly salary of 800 somonis ($178), nearly twice the national average. But he is still struggling to make ends meet.
"I try to save money on public transport costs by walking to work," Mirzoev says. "I don't eat out, and during my lunch breaks I go to the cheapest possible places. Instead of buying bread from bazaars, we buy flour and make bread at home."
For many households, eating meat has become a luxury. The price of beef, on average, was about 21 somonis ($5) per kilogram at the end of April. In the past few days, the average price has risen more than 30 percent, to 28 somonis. While a 50-kilogram sack of flour cost around 90 somonis ($20) just two weeks ago, Tajiks are now paying more than 130 somonis ($29).
The spike in food prices is particularly evident in the country's southern areas and the eastern Badakhshon province, while prices have remained relatively stable in most parts of the northern Sughd region.
The government, usually unmoved by public criticism, has this time stepped in to ease pressure on peoples' pocketbooks. Authorities announced they have allocated 60 million somonis ($13 million) for buying wheat and fuel, and a further 260 million ($58 million) for subsidies for the most vulnerable families, including the elderly and disabled.
To address people's growing anger, the office of the Dushanbe mayor set a cap on the prices market traders charge for flour and meat. At least 10 butchers were detained by Dushanbe police this week for defying the mayor's instruction.
Some butcher shops simply closed their businesses, saying the artificially low prices would leave them unable to cover their expenses, let alone make any profit. Of those who remain open, some have begun to sell lower-quality products -- mostly untrimmed cut of meats on the bone.
"If you buy a kilogram of meat, nearly a third of it is the bone and fat," complained Inoyat-Khon, a Dushanbe resident who came to a local bazaar to buy beef but was leaving empty-handed.
Desperate to keep food prices stable, the mayor's office has earmarked 20 million somonis ($4.5 million) to buy foodstuffs both from foreign and local manufacturers.
Asomiddin Rizoev, the head of the state agency for regulation of trade and markets in Dushanbe, says his office has received nearly $1 million to buy meat and farm products directly from farmers.
"This way we provide high-quality products with reasonable prices in Dushanbe markets," Rizoev says.
"Right now my deputy is in Sughd province. He bought fresh meat there from farmers to bring to Dushanbe. My other deputy has just returned from the Khovaling and Baljuvon regions, and he brought 200 livestock from there. Now we are buying first-hand from farmers. We do it to eliminate middlemen."
A Formidable Task
Even the staunchest of critics acknowledge that it is beyond the Tajik government's means to stop the spike in food costs. "However, the government could solve the problem in the longer-term by taking concrete steps," says Firuz Saidov, a Dushanbe-based independent analyst.
"There are a number of geopolitical issues directly affecting prices," Saidov says."Tajikistan imports between 60 and 70 percent of its wheat and all of its fuel and mineral fertilizers. The exporting countries have raised the original prices, and Dushanbe has no say over their decision. It's all adding to the problem."
Besides, the landlocked country has to pay transit fees to neighboring countries for the shipment of imported goods. Uzbekistan last year raised transport fees to Tajikistan by 10 percent.
Experts like Saidov point out that Tajikistan must reduce its dependency on imported foodstuffs and focus on its agricultural sector to grow more wheat, potatoes, and other vegetables locally.
The suggestion echoes President Emomali Rahmon's speech earlier this year in which he blamed the increasing prices partially on local farmers.
"Prices are increasing because we did not work properly last year and did not fulfill the instructions in time," the president said.
Growing Food Locally
For farmers, however, it is a tall order. Haitali Buriev grows wheat on his 24 hectares of farmland in the Hisor district, just outside the capital.
"I just spent $6,000 on seed, fuel, fertilizers, and other expenses, and it's only the beginning of the harvest season," Buriev says. "And I have to pay taxes and bribes for officials who find all kinds of pretexts to inspect my farm. How can I keep prices low?
"I borrowed $2,000 from the bank and I have to pay back with interest around $3,000. The loan is secured on my house, tractor, and power generator. I can lose all of them. I sent my son to work in Russia so we could pay back the loan."
Buriev says the government should do more to encourage the agricultural industry by cutting taxes, providing favorable loans for farmers, and increasing their opportunities to directly sell their products in markets.
"There are some 700 to 1,000 hectares of deserted land in my area, but no one wants to work on it because farming doesn't bring enough profit the way things work now," Buriev says.
Rahmon, in turn, has more ideas about how to use the deserted lands. He is encouraging families to produce food for themselves. The president has instructed the heads of districts to provide land, seed, and loans to households so they can grow wheat and vegetables.
In the meantime, the arrival of harvest season, bringing vegetables and fruits to Tajikistan's bazaars, could not have happened at a better time.
"It's helping a lot; we're surviving on vegetables because the new harvest prompted prices for potatoes and onions to drop," says Ravshan, a student in Dushanbe. But, he adds, "I haven't bought milk in two weeks. That's not for everyone's pocket now."
RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report
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