It is said that birds of a feather flock together. By meeting Belarusian premier Alexander Lukashenko it seems his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedow has found a brother in arms, one whose autocratic modus operandi has regularly had a nomenclature of Europe’s last dictator appended to descriptions of his near 23 year rule over the landlocked, former Soviet republic.
On visiting Ashgabat Lukashenko will undoubtedly be impressed with Berdymukhammedow’s array of showpiece Potemkin-style projects, set amid deserted streets down which few locals are allowed to meander. Marble and chandelier-heavy, many of the edifices(and statues) are ostensibly built to highlight the leader’s greatness, something which the average Turkmen has a whole life term to get used to, now constitutional barriers that hitherto prevented ‘life presidencies’ have been repealed. Complementing Ashgabat airport’s $2+ billion ornithologically-shaped terminal and the pop-up coastal resort of Awaza, both schemes which few locals and foreigners will ever get near, there are many examples how the state remind the population how fortunate they are to live under the incumbent administration.
And yet, money in Turkmenistan is tight. Basic foodstuffs can be hard to source and despite the country’s status as energy-rich, a regular power-supply is still considered to be a privilege rather than a right. Finance has continually been diverted from where it is often needed the most into white elephant projects that would make even Donald Tusk and Hannibal blush, in a style redolent of classic megalomania that only benefits a dictatorship’s inner circle and family.
It is interesting to note that Lukashenko and Berdymukhammedow planned to discuss areas of mutual interest. The latter will have no better opportunity to glean further tips on how to keep the population under his boot; the former will merely be preaching to the converted. Should Berdymukhammedow manage to acquire much needed financial stimulus from Minsk – the success of a recent cap in hand trip to Doha is unclear – Turkmenistan’s citizens can expect further statues of their dear leader atop one of his beloved golden horses, if only to once more reiterate who is firmly in charge.