I don’t smoke or drink alcohol, although that isn’t to say I haven’t at one time or another or fail to understand the rationale behind why people do so to varying degrees. Nor, however, do I condone the excuses so often hidden behind, and used to justify, in particular with alcohol, levels of behaviour that frequently brings the otherwise sober before the beak. I am though also aware of there being in the eyes of many few things worse than the newly found self-righteous piety of former ‘users’ like myself.

I believe alcohol to be the greatest evil of our time; one that governments the world over are outwardly quick to condemn but equally ambivalent to, happy it seems to acquiesce to the blandishments of the powerful drinks lobby. Used so frequently to ‘unwind’ alcohol is taken as a supposed cure-all for those affected by bereavements, the loss of a football match, or even the ‘go to’ panacea for any slight setback in our snowflake society. Far from being condemned for reaching for it as a crutch for the slightest, most flimsy excuse, users are lauded, even venerated, while teetotallers are ridiculed and even side-lined from jobs that offer perks of ‘beer Fridays’ or the like. Anyone brave enough to walk the dry route runs the risk of not being respected for a sensible, health conscious attitude, but instead accused of poking a condemnatory finger at the habits of others. Those who abstain are viewed as trying to censor – or should that be censure – the fun of others, rather than take care of their own health and eradicate behaviour that in many can be ruinous once alcohol enters their system.

Turkmenistan is a modern-day basket case of a country that would gain much greater exposure in the world’s media if it had a nuclear capability. There is little otherwise to separate the brutal regime of the former dentist turned autocrat, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow, from North Korea’s Kim dynasty. The relatively little news that does escape Ashgabat’s official line talks of queues for basic foodstuffs, forced labour in the country’s cotton fields, and snitches paid to monitor Turkmen students overseas. These are only a few examples of the president’s paranoid regime, one that from the frequent absence in necessary quantities of cooking oil and bread is assumed to be an impoverished, Yemen-like nation with little to generate income for the country. Wrong.

Sitting on vast reserves of hydrocarbons Turkmenistan is by dint of pure geographical chance potentially one of the wealthiest nations per capita in the wider region, if not the world. But yet, Berdymukhamedow, self-styled as the nation’s Arkadag, or patron, has blown countless billions, not millions, on vanity projects purely designed to give the outside world an erroneous impression of his power, perspicacity, and bottomless wisdom for what his electorate require. Scratch the surface, however, and what lies beneath is akin to a film set – a shiny, expensive veneer without anything beneath the superficial. A country resembling a playground for the president and his toadying coterie who know better than to rock the boat, includes a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, a lavish coastal resort and countless examples of the president’s love of statuery – often of himself.

The capital Ashgabat gleams with marble and glass – but is empty of Turkmen. Its new falcon-shaped airport terminal, reportedly costing several billions, shows a conspicuous absence of tourists who are rarely allowed into the country, as it is of its own countrymen seeking to leave – for whatever reason. Even aircraft primed for take-off have been requisitioned at a minute’s notice by the family of the ruling elite, defenestrating the mere mortals that the president so pretends to love through his many acts of altruism.

Where then does my opening assault on modern-day attitudes towards alcohol fit in with Berdymukhamedow’s bizarre but venomous presidency? As part of his deification the president luxuriates in promoting a healthy lifestyle by doing as all leaders should – practicing what he preaches. Frequently seen in the media undertaking various acts of wholesome activity, Berdymukhamedow might one minute be bestriding a deserted golf course with a living legend of the sport, taking a controlled jog around the nation’s capital, or cycling on a top-of-the-range racing bike. All this of course is when he isn’t working out in a state of the art, but again unoccupied gym. Now turning his attention to alcohol, the president is seeking to limit where strong drink can be taken, with further preventative measures taking the form of increasing excise duty and unit pricing.

In a country where rampant unemployment is a by-product of Berdymukhamedow’s economic policies, if they can be classed as such, alcoholism itself is an inevitable consequence of joblessness affecting many of the country’s male population, leading to appalling levels of domestic abuse. There is obviously no such thing as an acceptable level of this often hidden crime, but the president’s maladministration of Turkmenistan has squarely brought about the near breakdown of a society that he so wishes to follow his unerringly healthy lead.

I appreciate that there is a danger of hypocrisy leaking into this post. I am not for one-minute espousing that the president should leave alone the one pleasure most ordinary Turkmen enjoy, implying that I endorse alcohol to be a true friend of the consolation-seeker and disaffected. It does though occur to me that this decision to strike at the heart of Turkmenistan’s liquor industry, if not for the health-related reasons promulgated, is another, perverse way of subjugating the population and tightening his authority over it yet further. Far from being concerned about the health of the nation, Berdymukhamedow could merely be exercising yet more political muscle and at the same time posing the question: who of you are going to do anything about it?

None of Turkmenistan’s proletariat will get to play on Jack Nicklaus’ golf course, let alone be able to afford an expensive bicycle or recognize the inside of the type of gym most in the West take for granted. In what has become through the president’s blundering and narcissistic rule a country saddled with an asset rich, cash poor economy, an egalitarian approach of sharing the nation’s wealth garnered from its natural resources and the creation of a Sovereign Wealth Fund to future-proof Turkmenistan are significantly conspicuous by their absence. A president more concerned with living for the moment than sparing a thought for a future beyond his years, could find that a policy of depriving his countrymen of alcohol will in the end be counterproductive. A population now becoming accustomed to the privations more associated with impoverished, banana republics while being forced to watch their leader blow billions of their wealth on Potemkin-esque schemes, can surely only draw a conclusion that he is laughing at them.

There are though only so many times you can poke a tiger with a stick before it retaliates.

Further information and source material:

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: http://www.rferl.org/a/29687544.html

Eurasianet:

https://eurasianet.org/turkmenistan-in-space-nobody-can-hear-you-shill https://eurasianet.org/turkmenistan-opens-new-front-on-alcohol-in-health-drive

Azernews: http://www.azernews.az/region/142725.html