June 3, 2018 / 4:59 PM / 3 months ago

Foreign companies struggle in cash-strapped Turkmenistan

ALMATY/ANKARA (Reuters) - Some foreign companies in Turkmenistan are struggling to make sales and collect payments as economic pressures mount in large part because of a sharp drop in the Central Asian nation’s crucial gas exports.

FILE PHOTO: People stay in front of the terminal of the newly built airport with a portrait of Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov seen in the background during its official opening in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, September 17, 2016. REUTERS/Marat Gurt/File Photo

There is little economic data beyond official statistics that paint a picture of sustained growth, but some foreign executives say hard currency shortages have crippled the state-dominated economy.

Turkmenistan, with the world's fourth-largest gas reserves, is still awarding contracts to foreign and domestic firms, but some projects have stalled and the International Monetary Fund says it should cut spending or devalue its currency, the manat TMT=.

“The government has run out of financial resources, and it hasn’t been paying for finished contracts, let alone being able to pay for new ones,” said Oguzhan Cakiroglu, board member at Cakiroglu Grup, a Turkish metals and construction company that has now stopped operating in Turkmenistan.

Ashgabat’s problems began in 2016 when Russia, its main gas buyer, stopped buying, citing pricing disputes and shifts in the global energy market.

Exports to China have failed to offset the loss of Russian sales and the country’s total export revenue dropped to $8.0-8.5 billion in 2016-17, about half of what it was receiving between 2000 and 2014.

Graphic on Turkmenistan economy: tmsnrt.rs/2LevVc8

In response, the government of President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has gradually tightened foreign exchange controls to conserve hard currency for priority projects.

On the black market, the manat has fallen to 17-18 per dollar from 13-14 at the beginning of this year and 7 in late 2016. The official rate is 3.5 per dollar.

Private local companies such as importers of consumer goods receive only a fraction of the dollars they request, Turkmen entrepreneurs say. And, according to Cakiroglu, the government itself has trouble paying foreign contractors.

“The government has not been paying companies for more than three years, and it’s pushing the market into a more troubled situation, with a shortage of dollars pushing black market prices to 3-4 times the official exchange rate,” he said.

“We have pending payments of around a few million dollars, but we have been waiting for 4-5 years for this payment,” Cakiroglu said. “So we’ve stopped operating completely in Turkmenistan.”

He declined to say what reasons the government had given for delaying payment.

Another Turkish contractor, Polimeks, which in 2016 completed a $2.3 billion air terminal shaped like a giant white falcon in Ashgabat, has stopped work on a highway to connect the capital to the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi.

Polimeks declined to comment on its relationship with Turkmenistan, which has since made no official announcements on the highway project. The foreign ministry and the Turkmen embassy in Ankara did not reply to questions about the government’s debt to foreign companies.

Instead of providing investment figures as it does for other countries, a page on Turkmenistan on the website of Turkey’s Economy Ministry reads like a warning.

Risks such as “tax audits carried out like sudden raids”, visa denials and “the expropriation of certain investments made in previous years” are deterring foreign investment, it said.

The ministry said payments to Turkish contractors are often delayed and they have problems transferring foreign currency from their bank accounts.

“NEW BALL GAME”

Turkish contractors are probably owed the most by Ashgabat, because Turkey has for years been the main source of Turkmen imports and invested $1.5 billion in Turkmenistan between 2002 and 2016. But other companies have taken a hit.

Two Belarussian government sources told Reuters Ashgabat has not fully paid a Belarussian state-owned company for building a fertilizer plant launched in March 2017. One source said the outstanding debt was $52 million, the other said it was “a significant sum”.

DRC International, a U.S.-based technical procurement and distribution company for the mining, oil and gas and construction industries, has been in Ashgabat since 2004.

“We got some good traction in the early days. The largest project was in 2015 with Hyundai Amco on the navy shipyard, which was a great success for both Hyundai and DRC,” DRC chief executive Steve Crabtree said in an email.

“But sadly, those days are far behind us and it’s a whole new ball game,” he said. “I have cut expenses, replaced management, and keep pushing forward. I’m hopeful that conditions change for the country and we can get back to supporting great projects.”

An executive of another Western company who asked not to be named said his firm, which used to supply oil and gas equipment, had shut its Turkmen office late last year.

The executive said Turkmen customers could no longer buy his firm’s products due to foreign currency shortages.

A Turkmen emigre, who requested anonymity to protect relatives at home, said more and more of his contacts were looking for work abroad, with Turkey a top choice.

According to Turkey’s interior ministry, the number of Turkmens with Turkish short-term residency permits - separate from student and family permits - more than doubled last year to 25,693.

In an unusual move, Berdymukhamedov in March ordered the central bank to extend $3 billion in soft loans to the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs of Turkmenistan, a body made up of local companies, to build a highway and a fertilizer plant. The Union did not reply to a request for comment.

Previously, the government awarded such contracts to foreign companies. But some foreign firms continue to get Turkmen contracts.

Korean firm Hyundai said it was working on a $3 billion petrochemicals facility and was in talks about two more projects in the same sector worth $4.8 billion in total.

Hyundai said it had no difficulties with payments from Turkmenistan and described the government as supportive.

French firm Bouygues Construction also said it had no particular difficulties there. It secured fresh contracts in February for a conference center, a hotel and two bank buildings, whose value it declined to disclose.

NEW MARKETS

Turkmenistan, which routinely reports gross domestic product growth of over 6 percent, plans to open new gas export markets by the end of 2019 via a pipeline to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, currently under construction.

Russia’s Gazprom declined to comment on the prospects of resuming Turkmen gas purchases.

Turkmenistan is trying to diversify exports by processing some of its gas into fuel and chemicals. It also opened a new $1.5 billion Caspian port this month.

In the meantime, its policy options are either devaluing the manat or cutting government spending, said Juha Kahkonen, deputy director of the International Monetary Fund’s Middle East and Central Asia Department.

Reserves built up in better times will help the government handle the pressures, Kahkonen told Reuters, “but clearly it needs to make adjustments in its policies”.

Turkmenistan has run a double-digit current account deficit for the three past years, according to IMF data, although this year the gap is projected to narrow to 9 percent of GDP or $3.8 billion, from last year’s 11.5 percent, or $4.4 billion.

Hans Timmer, chief economist for Europe and Central Asia at the World Bank, said Turkmenistan’s current account deficit “is not really sustainable in the long run and foreign currency shortages reduce productive potential”.

The World Bank and the Ashgabat government have had “a more intense relationship” over the last couple of years, Timmer said, but Turkmenistan must do more before the bank can give it financial support, in particular by providing better economic data and ensuring transparency.

FILE PHOTO: Performers attend the launching ceremony of construction work of the TAPI project on the Afghan section of a natural gas pipeline that will link Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India, near the town of Serhetabat, Turkmenistan February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Marat Gurt/File Photo

Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow, Andrei Makhovsky in Minsk, Joori Roh in Seoul and Dominique Vidalon in Paris; Editing by Giles Elgood

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