Which is worse: A nationwide food shortage or an abundance of essentials but at prices up to 50% higher than those at the beginning of the year?
During recent times Turkmenistan has lurched from scarcity to a relative profuseness, although one wonders if the shortages of 2016 were all they seemed to be. Now that obtaining basic foodstuffs is all of a sudden not an issue, there would inevitably seem to be a catch. And then some. A decree reportedly handed down ‘from the top’ has levied a 20% increase on certain goods – enforced no less by state officials who in some cases have taken to unannounced visits to merchants, purely to extricate what to many is a swingeing tariff earmarked for another of the nation’s Potemkin projects.
Whilst it may be harsh to bracket the forthcoming Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games to be staged in Turkmenistan with schemes that include the lavish but hollow Awaza resort and marbled but empty Ashgabat Airport, the estimated $5.5 million bill has to somehow be raised, especially in the face of continued uncertainties surrounding gas exports to China, Russia, and Iran. Although the ability to bankroll a capital city resembling an invitation-only mausoleum and the Caspian Sea resort of Awaza have rarely been questioned, exports of the country’s admittedly huge reserves of gas to China are not all they seem. Described as Turkmenistan’s last remaining reliable and significant customer China has a complicated relationship with Ashgabat, whose debts owed to Beijing are effectively payed down by the commensurate levels of gas it supplies to its near neighbour. Difficulties arising from a lack of hard currency filtering into the country to pay for unwieldy, and arguably unnecessary projects seemingly predicated on promulgating a specious show of strength from the country’s autocratic leader have finally come home to roost, placing a financial burden squarely on Turkmenistan’s ordinary but oppressed population.
It is debatable that the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games were ever intended to be financed by the state. Anecdotal evidence suggests that ‘voluntary’ salary reductions in the region of 15-50% have been levied on many of the nation’s workers; in some cases this will continue up until September’s opening ceremony. Who though would want to voice opposition against what amounts to a punitive ‘games tax’ when President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow extols an ethos of healthy living, exercise, and the taking of tea – whilst all the while seeking to eradicate the use of tobacco? Notwithstanding the futility of opposing the country’s absolute leader, it would be more than the health of an individual and their family is worth to counter the skewed ideology of Turkmenistan’s supreme guide.
Although the hosting of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games are expected to generate unprecedented tourist numbers Turkmenistan remains one of the most impenetrable countries to enter. Far from any games-related relaxation of visa requirements foreigners have been warned not to buy tickets for events before acquiring an entry permit. Far from throwing open the country’s doors to travellers and dignitaries from the 62 competing countries Turkmenistan continues to revel in its reclusive, paranoid mindset that only serves to underpin the incomprehensibility of constructing Ashgabat Airport’s $2 billion terminal – a facility few will ever get to use. The nonsensical budget attached to the games is roughly in line with 11 months of bilateral trade between Turkmenistan and China, its largest trading partner. A games-specific monorail brings to mind The Simpson’s episode where Springfield is hoodwinked into buying an unnecessary monorail – a mass transit system serving a centralized population – by a charismatic charlatan. When the medals have been awarded and spectators have gone home, what will become of this expensive but superfluous mistake?
Although my obvious cynicism has brought into question just who or what was earmarked all along to finance the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games times were very different in 2010, when Turkmenistan was awarded the event. Gas exports to both Russia and Iran were healthy but the subsequent loss of such significant customers has inevitably hit the country hard, seemingly only leaving cashless energy ‘sales’ to China – the country’s last major ‘customer’. Although a commitment to a wholly unnecessarily large budget for the games could easily have been avoided, Turkmenistan could nevertheless have realistically assumed that it would have had sufficient reserves to back the event, rather than subsequently resort to mandatory taxation of its people to fund the budget, or at least a very sizeable shortfall.
Berdymukhamedow’s credibility to a far larger audience than to which he is used is though on the line. A watching world will judge for themselves if the carefully crafted facade he has constructed will pass for authentic or one that merely serves as a monument to a burgeoning cult of personality. It is one thing to fool the outside world but Turkmenistan’s population will not be taken in by an event that without them, wouldn’t have been possible. There is though little consolation from staging a sporting festival that will provide little in the way of a lasting legacy for the nation, whose population will also be expected to buy tickets for events in arenas that post-games will become as inaccessible as much of their own country already is.
In terms of a permanent legacy only the tale of sprinklers purchased by Blackpool F.C. being the sole tangible benefaction of the club’s promotion to the English Premier League comes close to describe, what, in the end, any positive long lasting effect the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games will have on Turkmenistan’s population.
Source material and further information:
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: https://www.rferl.org/a/qishloq-ovozi-milking-turkmen-people-pay-for-games/28403657.html and