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Stealing shoes in mosques: amid cost-of-living crisis, theft is on the rise in Turkmenistan

During a command visit, the Marines with the Marine Security Guard Detachment at U.S. Embassy Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, took their region commanding officer and first sergeant to visit the Türkmenbaşy Ruhy Mosque, June 29, 2022. The mosque is the largest and most controversial mosque in all of Central Asia. (U.S. Marine Corps courtesy photo)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Worshippers and imams in Turkmenbashi reported an upsetting incident of theft at the coastal city’s grand mosque, where several people’s shoes, wallets, and mobile phones were stolen while they were praying.

The alleged thefts took place when the worshippers were taking part in Friday Prayers that were followed by a sermon, an elderly man told a correspondent from RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service on the ground. The local resident said cash was stolen from the pocket of his overcoat during the January 6 incident.

Another attendee of the mosque said his shoes were stolen. “It was the only pair I had,” he said.

This latest incident, which remains unsolved, is part of what many Turkmen describe as a rise in theft in recent months in the secretive and authoritarian country. Privately, many Turkmen blame the rising crime rate on the cost-of-living crisis.

RFE/RL contacted the regional police department in Balkan Province, where the city of Turkmenbashi is located, for comment, but didn’t receive any response. However, a police officer there told RFE/RL on the condition of anonymity that law-enforcement agencies have registered similar crimes at several other mosques.

Turkmen authorities don’t release any information on crime rates or allow RFE/RL any official access, meaning reporters, often working underground, have to rely on snapshots of data and anecdotal evidence. With independent media mostly barred from the country and all major social media sites blocked, it is hard to get a fully reliable picture of life on the ground.

The police officer, who is based in the provincial capital, Balkanabat, and speaking anonymously for fear of reprisals, said the incidents took place in the first week of January. He also confirmed many citizens’ claims that theft in general has increased.

The police officer said there has been a “noticeable rise” in Balkanabat in cases where “women walking alone in the streets were targeted by thieves who took their bags and mobile phones.” Many of the attacks took place in broad daylight, the officer added.

There has also been an increase in anecdotal reports of burglary, mugging, and supermarket theft across the country, according to many residents, eyewitnesses, and victims who spoke to RFE/RL. A common complaint was children stealing foodstuffs from shops and bazaars, while in rural communities residents reported an uptick in livestock theft.

Many Turkmen blame the trend on the cost-of-living crisis and deepening poverty that the Central Asian country faces despite its abundant natural-gas resources. Others say widespread police corruption has also contributed to the rise in crime.

Turkmenistan has been facing harsh economic conditions over the past near- decade. Low wages, increasing unemployment, food shortages, and rising prices have left many in a desperate economic situation.

One supermarket owner in the city of Bayramaly, Mary Province, said he was conscious of the plight of the poverty-stricken children who try to steal food from his store.

The businessman, who didn’t want to give his name to RFE/RL, recalled an incident in October 2022 when a “young boy in shabby, old clothes” entered his store just before closing time, snatched a pack of cookies, and ran away.

The man said he chased the boy, caught him, and then asked why he was stealing. “The boy said he had two younger siblings at home and that they had nothing to eat. He was taking the cookies to his siblings,” the store owner said.

He also found out that the children’s father had gone abroad as a migrant worker and hadn’t contacted his family for several years. Their mother worked evening shifts but didn’t make enough money to feed her family. With official statistics unavailable, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Turkmen work abroad, most of them in Turkey.

The store owner said he decided not to report the incident. Instead, he asked his assistant to take the boy to his mother and sent some food to the family.

Many Turkmen complain the government doesn’t have an adequate social-welfare system to help the vulnerable. They accuse the authorities of failing to tackle poverty and chronic unemployment that has forced millions of Turkmen to leave the country over the past decade.

In the eastern city of Turkmenabat, the administrative center of Lebap Province, locals have also complained about a rise in theft of livestock and household appliances.

On January 1 alone, three households in Turkmenabat reported cattle rustling, one of the victims told RFE/RL. Unknown thieves entered the houses located on the banks of the Amudarya River and stole cows, sheep, and goats, while the owners were away.

The man said the police refuse to act, saying they were too busy to deal with such complaints. “They told us, ‘We have no time to deal with these kinds of problems. We already have a lot of work to do,'” the Turkmenabat resident told RFE/RL. He said police didn’t open a probe until the victims paid them bribes.

RFE/RL contacted the Turkmenabat police department for comment but didn’t receive any response.

Authorities in Turkmenistan don’t publicly acknowledge the existence of any major problems in the country. State media parrot the government’s line of prosperity, abundance, and happiness that they say the people of Turkmenistan enjoy in their daily lives.