The continued bizarre, contrary modus operandi of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow again highlights the former dentist’s despotic hold over the former Soviet republic.
Self-styled as a deity predestined to shepherd the nation to greatness through his many initiatives that often amount to little more than yet another Potemkin-esque, white elephant construction project, Berdymukhamedow’s absolute grip on the nation ensures that dissenters dare not object to the squandering of billions on projects designed to herald the president’s perspicacity and omniscience, with little or no benefit to a population more accustomed to queuing for basic foodstuffs. Herein lies just one of the many contradictions of a state unable to consistently feed its people, whilst possessing an apparently bottomless pot of money to facilitate the construction of pointless vanity projects to sate the president’s skewed, but voracious, ideology.
Elsewhere on Berdymukhamedow’s watch, discrepancies continue to abound. A continued drive to improve the nation’s physical health is undoubtedly a positive aspect of what should be part of any leaders manifesto. Significant emphasis has been placed on eventually eradicating smoking in Turkmenistan, somewhat at odds with recent reports of hitherto empty state-run grocery shops being restocking with amongst other items, cigarettes. Is this a pragmatic, albeit cynical, approach to cash in on an item that will always sell in abundance, assuming it is still legal to own and use? In times of self-inflicted economic hardship even sentiments of healthy living will be overlooked if vital currency can be generated from selling what is supposedly anathema to the president.
Turkmenistan is known for being one of the worst perpetrators of forced labour, primarily to bring its vital cotton crop to market. Workers in unrelated employment are shanghaied into cultivating the ‘White Gold’; refusal to do so can adversely affect their careers and often those of their relatives. Buying oneself out of your apparent duty to the nation can involve a swingeing amount of money and finding a willing volunteer to pick up your slack, ensuring the path of least resistance is usually taken rather than an alternative of reprisals against the individual, and family, or funding the crippling cost of avoiding the draft. It is these wholly unethical employment principles in mind that prompted the United States to recently ban all raw and finished cotton products originating in Turkmenistan, although with most material of its kind sourced from Turkey the opacity of provenance will inevitably lead to some items slipping through the net. The United States, while having commendably led the way in countering the harshness of Berdymukhamedow’s regime being translated into the country’s agricultural industry, recently convened a meeting in Ashgabat between a State Department official and Turkmenistan’s Foreign Ministry. One can only speculate as to how the conversation confronted, or steered around, the weighty topic of human rights abuses in the cotton fields although if the official schedule is to be believed, humanitarian interaction and the protection of human rights were apparently high on the agenda. Furthermore, bilateral relations with a view of furthering universal peace will surely involve the cessation of Turkmenistan’s people living in terror, and the introduction of democratic principles through elections and an independent judiciary? I wouldn’t count on it.
Berdymukhamedow’s love of the built form, in all its ostentatious glory, is nothing new. Far from being seen as a vanity project of little use to the nation, it is at this point important to attempt to understand the way the mind of a despot works. The subject of the statue, or dedicated building, is assumed to be its very raison d’etre; an example of a president’s selfless attempt to immortalize, for example, a figure from history, or a contemporary symbol of Turkmenistan, such as Akhal-Teke horses. The reality is somewhat different, at least in the mind of an autocrat. The very edifice itself, not its subject, is the motivation to reflect the power of the country’s leader, that he can do as he pleases and is able to source the engineering expertise, and finance, to bring the project to fruition. It is all about he who commissions the work, further stroking a voracious ego, dressed up as having an altruistic, patriotic purpose. All this will be of little consolation to an impoverished, oppressed general public who will be braced for the president’s next wave of statues, one such to provisionally celebrate a yet to be created International Day of Cycling. It just so happens Berdymukhamedow enjoys bicycling around the capital, seeking out new building opportunities and giving the proletariat a rare chance to view their supreme leader in the flesh.
There is of course a certain comic book villain-quality to Turkmenistan’s president, with it being easy for observers from afar to scoff at his perpetual blundering and squandering. Behind the Falcon-shaped airport, an empty purpose-built Caspian Sea resort, and Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course better suited to roaming white pachyderms, there is a nation of terrified people whose every movement are scrutinized, even if they are fortunate to head abroad to work or study. Far from being a benevolent dictator in the style of Josip Broz Tito there will be little positive to show from a presidency characterized by greed, ego, vanity, and paranoia. A lack of a Sovereign Wealth Fund will also ensure pay dirt earned off the back of the country’s huge hydrocarbon reserves has been spent, and squandered, in real time, with little thought or care for a future when the country will be free of Berdymukhamedow’s grip.
Far from helping to ensure a smooth transition after secession from the Soviet Union, Berdymukhamedow and predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov have abused the country’s resources and people for their own warped, narcissistic agendas. Instead of laying foundations for future generations the time ahead could amount to Russia and China picking over what is left, should regime and radical ideological changes not be forthcoming. None of this will be Berdymukhamedow’s problem after he has left the scene(or sought exile) but the years of his misrule will be felt by Turkmenistan for generations to come.
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