Is an over-reliance on energy exports coming back to haunt Turkmenistan? 

When times were good Turkmenistan earned riches from its natural energy resources far and away greater than what a country of 5 million citizens could normally expect. Whilst the size of a nation’s population is rarely commensurate to landmass – Canada and Bangladesh being two such contrasting examples – it was assumed that the relatively small amount of indigenous inhabitants of the former Soviet republic would benefit from a trickle down effect resultant from the country’s very own energy-style ‘gold rush’. The reality has though been somewhat different.

Instead of evenly distributing the spoils from gas exports or creating a sovereign wealth fund that would give greater long-term benefits to the country, billions have been lavished on Potemkin-esque projects – designed to promulgate Turkmenistan as something it sadly isn’t. Behind the dreamland of chandeliers and marble lies escalating inflation, only an intermittent supply of basic foodstuffs and a closed, totalitarian state that makes it nigh impossible for its citizens to exit the country – and for the tourists it so craves to enter. A lack of forward-planning whilst the good times rolled has seen Turkmenistan miss a crucial opportunity to put its everyday people at the forefront of its decision-making. It appears to have been assumed that the money from gas exports would keep the tills ringing but since prices halved and demand from foreign customers collapsed, especially since Iranian gasfields have once more entered the equation, the inherent danger of putting all of ones eggs in a single basket has come to pass.

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, a former dentist and Health Minister under the previous regime has even ‘recruited’ golf’s greatest ever exponent, Jack Nicklaus, to design a links course to complement his pet coastal-resort project at Awaza – situated on the less than hospitable Caspian Sea. Either through naivety or just another chance to earn a quick buck Nicklaus has enthusiastically embraced the president’s rhetoric to take golf ‘to the people’. Despite its profusion of 5-star hotels Awaza is in effect a playground for the favoured few, and is hardly a resort for the average Turkmen. Akin to Ashgabat’s new $2 billion airport terminal, these are schemes that look pretty but stand there and say nothing. Far from being the socialist paradise espoused by those who preside over their people in an autocratic fashion, Turkmenistan operates under a emperor’s new clothes dictum. Only the president and his inner circle can see the benefit of pouring money into superfluous capital projects to extol the country’s, but in effect their(his) deified, preternatural status, rather than evenly distributing a bonanza that could have created an egalitarian and just society. It should also be remembered that Turkmenistan is potentially so wealthy simply from quirks of geography and geology, not from advanced technological and scientific industries developed from within the country. In a nutshell, this means that once its natural resources have been depleted it will have nowhere to run, save for aid from the international community which its isolationist ideology currently does its best to keep at arm’s length. If times are hard now for the vast majority of its citizens, it is difficult to imagine how Turkmenistan will cope when its energy fields no longer yield their bounty. It is therefore inevitable that China will be keeping a close eye on developments, as is the case in several other of Turkmenistan’s neighbouring former Soviet republics. Whether it will be a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, the ship carrying Turkmenistan’s riches has sadly long since left port.

Source material courtesy of The Economist (17th December 2016) – economist.com