Urban Dictionary define the term “bananas” as …something crazy, ridiculous. It is therefore highly appropriate that a country such as Turkmenistan, one with an unstable, North Korea-lite despot at the controls is in the process of growing its first ever crop of the yellow fruit. Whether the former Soviet republic can be described as a banana republic – an over-reliance on exporting fossil fuels to the international market appears to be one of only a couple of tangible revenue streams – is debatable, although a combination of this and attributes pointing to a potential standing as a failed state at the hands of the autocratic, narcissistic Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow paint a bleak picture of the asset rich, cash poor nation of 5 million citizens.
Similar to state-controlled media and television output in North Korea Berdymukhamedow keeps his people on a tight rein through ubiquitous showings of strength, designed to further cow the watching public and suppress any thoughts of insurrection. Who is going to confront a president, and his regime, when the man at the top is filmed displaying military ‘prowess’ with an array of guns and knives? Certainly, this is one former dentist you wouldn’t want to do your root-canal surgery.
To the outside world these bumbling but psychologically effective attempts at being a political, and physical strongman can be seen as harmless, as eccentric, but to Turkmenistan’s population they are no joke. Here is a man who has frittered away on numerous vanity projects countless billions of dollars raised through his country’s quite fortunate position of sitting atop of almost boundless natural gas reserves; all the while many have to form queues for basic foodstuffs and wonder how long the lights will this time be staying on. One wonders how close to any theatre of conflict this self-appointed General of the Army would get, should Turkmenistan’s frontiers be infiltrated by ISIS insurgents.
Known for its cotton fields Turkmenistan’s does also place great emphasis on maximizing efficiency through the growth and harvesting of its cash crop. Almost wholly reliant on slave and coerced labour to bring the raw material to market, the sounding of the international starting gun by refusing to procure cotton directly from Turkmenistan, on the basis that it has been produced using methods contrary to any number of human rights abuses, has finally been initiated, by the United States. Such a stance is laudable by the Trump administration, although, as most Turkmen cotton is purchased through Turkey, extremely close attention to its provenance will have to be undertaken to ensure that America’s stance doesn’t amount to well-meaning but empty rhetoric. With this in mind one wonders about the productivity of a recent meeting held between Berdymukhamedow and a United States non-governmental business delegation, predicated on strengthening bilateral ties which in effect, amounts to what the U.S. can get out of a state in dire need of international assistance, despite its seemingly neutral, isolationist position to the world at large. It is hoped that the Trump administration will not only follow through its stance on slavery-produced cotton, but also tighten up on private business interests trading with Turkmenistan – effectively serving to renounce the current regime.
The truth in Turkmenistan remains the elusive creature it ever has been under the Berdymukhamedow regime. While all reasonable forecasts and indices point to a stark contrast to government-sanctioned figures of output, growth, and inflation it is entirely in the president’s best interests to promulgate an ‘everything is fine’ attitude; after all, it would be political suicide to do anything but when considering all that occurs in Turkmenistan, and that doesn’t, is at his behest. Never mind the truth, the visual proof of a marbled, gold-leafed Turkmenistan is there for all to see. Therefore, all must be well for a population that the outside world rarely get to see, and who it seems are not allowed to roam around their own country at leisure if Ashgabat, perhaps the world’s most opulently appointed but empty capital city is anything to go by. Despite all appearances to the contrary the state recently announced that Ashgabat’s population has breached the one million mark, with urban sprawl seemingly absorbing outlying areas into the capital city’s metropolitan area. Quite where the one million inhabitants hide themselves has not been detailed, although the AzerNews article contains a photograph which hardly substantiates the trumpeted population growth.
Although in theory representing a reliable revenue-stream for Turkmenistan the recent agreement which delineated the territorial rights of the Caspian Sea’s littoral states will only fund further white elephant, Potemkin-esque projects while Berdymukhamedow stays at the helm. The knock on effects of fossil fuel-derived wealth have yet to be felt by the general populace, unless of course you include the adverse consequences of so much of the country’s prosperity being blown on nonsensical castles in the sky, or on land, with the Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course being just one ludicrous example. A binding agreement which for legal reasons now doesn’t differentiate between whether the body of water is classed as a sea or lake, enables freedom of movement across its surface for all the littoral states but crucially, divides up the oil and gas rich seabed. Opening up possibilities for the Trans-Caspian pipeline to finally become a reality, there will also be the option to fully utilize the port of Turkmenbashi, enabling fellow Central Asian former Soviet republic Uzbekistan to increase cotton exports to China. All this sounds as if another golden goose has landed in Berdymukhamedow’s lap rather than the county’s, further feathering the president’s nest and providing him with the means to go on another spending spree.
It is nevertheless no surprise that as a consequence to consensus being reached on the Caspian question, that Russia’s President Putin is already seeking closer ties with the four other countries – Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan – with which it shares the world’s largest inland body of water. Although it is always preferable if at all possible to get along with your neighbours there can be little doubt that any additional cosying up from Moscow will be motivated by what it can get out of the Caspian agreement, and its fellow seaboard states. Although Putin has since met Berdymukhamedow in Sochi, it is unclear if the Russian’s apparent stance of keeping his Turkmen counterpart at arms length, with a view that his tribute is needed far more than anything with which the Ashgabat regime could reciprocate has changed post-agreement, now that Turkmenistan’s geographic location and wealth of natural resources has gained greater regional and international significance. There would be some suggestion that Putin gets a level of satisfaction that a post-Soviet era tin-pot dictator has to periodically go cap in hand to the former motherland.
Quite what Putin makes of Berdymukhamedow’s excesses one can only guess, although the chaos that ensued in the aftermath of the break up of the former Soviet Union allowed dictators and oligarchs to take advantage of the power vacuum and opportunities otherwise unheard of back in the old USSR. On the one hand it would be quiet easy to shun a leader hellbent on personal deification and obscene examples of building edifices to consolidate the power and bullet-proof nature of his regime. If though there is something in it for Russia, perhaps at a knock down price and with few other countries in the region representing such a large market, Putin will have no qualms of dancing with the devil.
Further wealth pouring into Turkmenistan, from whatever source, will only serve to promote the president’s programme of self-glorification and Father of the Nation status. Without regime change based upon democratic principles Turkmenistan’s people will continue to wait in queues for basic foodstuffs, and see the value of their money dropping while inflation sours. The absence of a Sovereign Wealth Fund ensures that even a future under a more benevolent regime does not promise anything other jam tomorrow. If after a whole-life term as president, Berdymukhamedow will have little concern for what occurs after he has gone. Notwithstanding a reported $23 billion in several German banks belonging to a Turkmen-national – I wonder who – there is a somewhat depressing sense that even under the auspices of a more compassionate administration, Turkmenistan’s future is bleak.
Despotic, autocratic regimes fascinate the outside world for their excesses, unpredictability, and delusions of grandeur. Instead, our thoughts should be with the beleaguered residents of countries such as North Korea and Turkmenistan, who have little chance of overthrowing regimes that keep their people just that bit too hungry to challenge the status quo.
Source material and further information:
Urban Dictionary: www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=That%27s%20bananas
The Drive: www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/22975/turkmenistans-trike-riding-president-cant-miss-in-this-horribly-awesome-propaganda-video
BBC News: www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-45162282 *FANTASTIC ARTICLE*
Radio Free Europe/Radio Free Liberty: www.rferl.org/a/putin-hosts-turkmen-leader-in-sochi-after-caspian-summit/29436766.html
Financial Times(UK): www.ft.com/content/93c52100-9e16-11e8-85da-eeb7a9ce36e4