ASHKHABAD, TURKMENISTAN — THE government of this Central Asian state has the reputation of being one of the most conservative in any former Soviet republic.
But in spite of Turkmenistan's lingering adherence to communism and a collectivized system, its leaders realize the importance of maintaining an important bastion of free enterprise: the farmers' market. A place where vendors, not the state, determine prices, the farmers' market is the only part of the economy that functions smoothly and consistently.
"Even when there is little in the stores, there is always plenty to choose from here," explains Meret Saparov, an apple vendor at Ashkhabad's central market.
The central market in the Turkmen capital has an old feel, yet a decidedly prefabricated look, replete with plenty of concrete. Many buildings in the city, including the squat-looking market, were built during the past few decades. Few structures survive from the pre-World War II era, because the city was devastated by an earthquake in 1948.
Though Ashkhabad is a fairly new city, founded in 1881 as a military outpost of the Russian Empire, a visit to the market conjures up images of the fabled Silk Road of old.
Many of the vendors are women dressed in traditional Turkmen costumes, brightly colored red, green, or blue dresses with equally colorful scarves wrapped around their heads. And the market is as loud as it is bright, as some vendors shout enticements at passersby to try their products, while others animatedly bargain with potential customers.
True to Saparov's word, the market is a relative cornucopia of goods. Fruits are most plentiful: There are mounds of apples, pyramids of pears, and rows of melons, as well as an abundance of dried fruits. But there is plenty more to be found. In addition to meat and other foods, women hawk hand-woven garments, while a few men offer selections of silver jewelry.
Many of the vendors come from collective farms around the capital, and much of the produce comes from so-called private plots - little areas of land where the farmers are free to grow what they choose. Private plots constitute about 5 percent of arable land in the republics that made up the former Soviet Union, but provided up to 25 percent of food supplies.
Though plenty is available at the markets, the prices are not cheap, especially when compared with the goods available in state-subsidized stores. And in the era of economic hard times, few people can afford the high prices. A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of raisins, for example, goes for about 30 to 40 rubles these days. Though that is only about 40 cents at current exchange rates, for some it is equivalent to a tenth of a month's wages.
Many vendors from all over Central Asia travel to cities in Russia, where they say they can sell their goods more quickly and at a higher price. The same kilo of raisins that goes for 40 rubles in Central Asia goes for 60 rubles in Moscow, says Azam Abduganyev, a vendor at the Moscow Central Market who comes from Uzbekistan.
"I came to Moscow to visit my brother," says Mr. Abduganyev. "To pay for my journey, I brought along a few boxes of raisins and nuts. I should make enough to pay my travel expenses in about five days."
The farmers' market may have an exotic air about it, but many vendors these days say they are bored most of the time because of a lack of customers.
"It's a very difficult life. We must wake up early and we have to stand much of the day," says Iroda Irgashova, another vendor at the Moscow market who hails from Uzbekistan. "The time passes quickly only when there are lots of customers."