Turkmenistan’s appalling record of human rights violations and its ranking at the very bottom of the World Press Freedom Index should see it internationally regarded as a pariah state, but a continued clamour from the European Union and western powers to do business within the Central Asian republic only serves to underplay the oppressive, police state-like conditions endured by the vast majority of its population.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow’s reign is characterized by the classic despotic traits of unpredictability, extreme narcissism and self-deification, with an obsessional control of Turkmen living both within the country’s borders and those studying and working in neighbouring states. Queuing for basic foodstuffs is commonplace for those living away from the country’s capital, Ashgabat, where also a shortage of cooking oil, flour, and bread isn’t unknown. In a country with little of its own wealth or an ability to generate income this would be partly understandable, however unacceptable in the modern age. By dint of pure geographic chance Turkmenistan finds itself sitting on significant gasfields and for all intents and purposes is regarded as a significant player in the hydrocarbons sector, granting in theory a bounty of riches and an opportunity to create a Sovereign Wealth Fund(SWF) for when the wells finally run dry. The first part of the deal has undoubtedly occurred, garnering countless billions of dollars for a country with few other sizeable exports outside of cotton(more on this later). Berdymukhamedow has though instead opted for a course of systematic squandering of the country’s own money on his pet, white elephant, Potemkin-esque projects whilst cosying up to international celebrities who fell for the shtick and were blinded by the wheelbarrows of money propelled their way.
Only in a country regarded by me as North Korea-lite – basically an authoritarian dystopia run by a narcissistic megalomaniac but without a nuclear capability – can billions be blown on a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course for roaming white pachyderms, countless statuary dedicated to the president and a Falcon-shaped airport terminal which few Turkmen can check out of any time they like, but from where they rarely leave. These are just a snapshot of the president’s many excesses amid a backdrop of hungry citizens suffering the indignity of queuing for food while their leader swans around in a parallel universe dedicated to Mammon, and himself.
It is all well and good for western, democratic powers to issue condemnatory lip service regarding Berdymukhamedow’s totalitarian grip on a country that uses slave labour to harvest its cotton cash crop, but it seems that their intelligence comes from human rights groups and Turkmenistan’s underground news portals, whose informants literally risk life and limb to retell the many harsh realities of life within the country. It also seems the many damning indictments contained within often harrowing accounts of daily life within the country fail to deter those who should know better. The impression that the president will get time and again is that money ultimately talks; whatever he does with his country’s money and to its people is almost immaterial when any ‘disagreements’ can be ironed out with enough cash to erase memories or mollify ill-feeling. Just ask Nicklaus, and singers John Newman and Jennifer Lopez what motivated their various appearances in the country.
It is amid a considerable backdrop of food shortages, the monitoring of citizens, forced labour, the misappropriation of countless billions(including a rumoured $23 billion in German bank accounts) and a complete absence of democracy that, for example, the United Kingdom(UK) recently brought a high-level delegation for talks in Ashgabat with corresponding figures from the Berdymukhamedow regime. It is utterly shameful and unconscionable that the UK indulges the status quo within Turkmenistan, let alone is seen to be cosying up to a rogue state, the definition of which infers a country that is a danger to others. I would extend this definition by stating it is a danger to its own people.
I ask myself – would the UK and others be so interested in Turkmenistan if it wasn’t hydrocarbon-rich? Perhaps it is seen by the so-called civilized Western democracies that lasting change can only be brought about by subtly intervening through diplomacy, trade missions, and a nauseating course of blandishments. I would argue that such an approach in fledgling, secessionist states isn’t entirely without merit but will fall on stony ground in hardened, absolutist states that just simply laugh at Western hypocrisy.
In 2018 exports of raw cotton from Turkmenistan whose provenance almost certainly included the use of forced labour were outlawed by the United States, in a move roundly applauded by those who had for years pushed for international recognition of the outrages committed throughout Central Asia. With though this in mind it was with some bewilderment, a word often used with this protagonist in mind, that President Donald Trump wrote to his Turkmen counterpart offering greetings and hopes that greater capacity of Caspian Sea-based gas reserves can be exported to the West. The lure of gas and oil continues its perpetual seduction of those who fail in their ignorance to see the far bigger picture, or simply suffer from selective amnesia when money talks.
Whilst he will never be remembered as a great, selfless man of the people President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow is anything but stupid. Far from living in an international backwater underpinned by unassuming naivety the president knows how to manipulate those who should know better and has the money and fossil fuel reserves to call the shots. The European Union(EU) are due to open offices in Ashgabat, the act of which in my view legitimizes the regime. Again, does the EU think it can facilitate change in the country by blinking first? Don’t bet on it. Heavy German involvement in Turkmenistan, including unashamedly providing the regime with state-of-the-art surveillance equipment to use against its people proves no marketplace or ethos is off limits. UK involvement in the country has reached governmental levels, but also several prominent UK Insurance brokerages have inked memoranda of understanding with a country that has at times thought nothing of appropriating business assets belonging to foreign companies operating within Turkmenistan. Either there is a lack of homework being undertaken producing poor advice or quite simply, the financial risk-reward attached to such a hostile business environment is seen as a chance worth taking.
I wonder what the players within the international community think of a country where some of its citizens are resorting to smuggling bed linen and towels into neighbouring Kazakhstan. Such actions are though a poignant legacy of Berdymukhamedow’s ruinous reign and reflect not only an absence of Turkmenistan’s now disappeared wealth filtering through to all sections of society but also the need to make money now, with no prospect of a Sovereign Wealth Fund diversifying the economy once the gas has gone. By then the president will also have gone, either into exile or mortality, with little thought or provision for the country he’ll have left behind.
International involvement to supposedly encourage democratic principles and the eradication of human rights abuses will simply not work whilst a regime adept in the dark arts holds sway. Those that continue to protest otherwise need to examine their own motives, although these, in the end, are as blatantly obvious as the deserted streets of Ashgabat.
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