Fiddling while Rome burns has always been the preserve of emperor Nero, although the idiom that in effect describes a focus on the trivial while issues of greater importance are left unattended has been adopted on countless occasions by those, in modern parlance, who seek to control the controllables, rather than address the more pertinent questions of the day.

There can be few greater present-day exponents of whiling away the days practicing the art of pettifogging than Turkmenistan’s dictator, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow. Despite the former Soviet republic’s status as being gas-rich countless billions have been blown on Berdymukhamedow’s pet, Potemkin-esque projects that firmly place the former dentist in the deluded-dictator category. Far from being a benevolent dictator lavishing his country’s fortuitous wealth on the nation as a whole, it appears a marbled but inaccessible Ashgabat, an outlandish Falcon-shaped airport terminal and the Awaza resort on the Caspian Sea were constructed to prove a specious point to the international community of Turkmenistan’s and Berdymukhamedow’s power – in what is a notoriously unstable region. The fact that few from within the country, and even less outsiders, will ever be able to visit, and use, these and other white elephant schemes appears to be of little consequence.

The emergence of a recently filmed keyboard duet shared by Berdymukhamedow with his grandson eulogizing in the local Turkic language – with a handy English translation – of the country’s many virtues will be of little comfort to the general populace, who are yet to see any benefit from the country’s now rapidly disappearing wealth. A far cry from the president’s ostentatious displays of his own conspicuous consumption, the reality on the ground is of a lack of basic foodstuffs and unreliable utilities in a country that heavily depends on summer air-conditioning, and dependable sources of heat during the harsh Central Asian winters. A self-deified leader is hardly a man of the people when he in effect shows them nothing but utter disdain and indifference.

Turkmenistan is perhaps one of the prime examples of a 21st century failed state. With little meaningful opposition to upbraid the president of his regime’s human rights abuses and the country’s vanished wealth, Berdymukhamedow can act with impunity on his seemingly exhaustive list of personal whims and fancies, showcased as being for the country’s greater good. It has not yet been established how a non-golf playing country such as Turkmenistan will benefit from a Jack Nicklaus-designed course, which will presumably be patronized by the favoured few within the nation’s inner circle. A lack of democracy and transparency of course go hand in hand, but to ensure the population are always on the brink of hunger could work to keep them under the president’s boot, but a starving, desperate and potentially insurrectionist people could serve to be the regime’s ultimate downfall. Such an outcome does though seem to be as far away as it ever has been.

Turkmenistan’s controversial methods of cotton production have long been a source of international condemnation, but until this year with little tangible action to back up the media rhetoric. To their credit the United States has put its head above the parapet by banning cotton produced in Turkmenistan, by what is widely viewed as being done so in slave-like conditions. Those in the country whose metier is anything but agricultural are co-opted into ‘assisting’ with the harvest, with dire implications for those who refuse, cannot pay a fine, or locate a substitute to pick up their slack. Although much of the cotton acquired by the USA is sourced from Turkish buyers, it is hoped that such a high-profile boycotter will not only back up its words with actions, but also that others will follow suit. While not wishing further poverty and negative consequences on the already beleaguered Turkmen people, only through international recognition of the many abuses occurring within their nation will their plight be brought to greater prominence, and ultimately heap pressure on the Berdymukhamedow regime. His desire for a lifelong presidency will be sorely tested should such eventualities become reality, which could force his hand to effectuate positive change, or risk large-scale civil disobedience from an increasingly desperate population.

The construction of so many capital-projects within Turkmenistan has provoked inevitable comparisons with the use by the United Arab Emirates of its oil wealth, but these gaudy facades are anything but a Sovereign Wealth Fund(SWF) for when the natural gas finally runs out. Scratch the shiny surfaces away from the official tour-guided routes confirms a lack of tangible substance, and any obvious long-term planning. What does though appear to be the makings of a SWF has been found to be squirreled away in German bank accounts; the purpose of the estimated $23 billion remains unclear, although would obviously prove to be a useful slush fund should a president ever need to flee his country at a minutes notice.

Reaffirming links with Russia is seen in some quarters as a get-out clause for Berdymukhamedow and the country in general, although there is little to suggest that Vladimir Putin needs Turkmenistan more than it needs him. Even if Moscow was to once more become closely allied to Ashgabat and amount to being its best customer, there are no guarantees that the extra hard-currency will benefit anyone but Berdymukhamedow and his latest raft of empty shell projects. With a head that has already been inexorably turned by amounts of money beyond the wildest dreams of most, a volte face of such unparalleled scale is no more envisioned now than it ever has been, or presaged for the future.

There is only one big change needed by the people of Turkmenistan, but the self-styled father of the nation hasn’t finished just yet, nor in any event would he go in a manner anything but kicking and screaming from a world of Croesus from where it is a long, long way down.

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