It is unclear how Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow has concluded that his country is now a net producer of wheat whilst many of his citizens are forced to queue for basic foodstuffs. Does this then mean that Turkmenistan is exporting wheat, and perhaps other comestible component parts to neighbouring or otherwise unnamed nations for a higher price than instead feeding the population in outlying areas away from the capital Ashgabat, or that it is merely another fabrication of the reality within one of the world’s most oppressive, closed countries?

Basic economics and indeed morality suggest that only once a country’s people have been adequately catered for would there then be an opportunity to export agricultural surplus for financial gain, or even as an act of altruism. Admittedly Turkmenistan is not run along sound economic principles, nor can an autocrat ever be accused of making decisions from a moral perspective, but one wonders how Berdymukhamedow tallies his ascertain that his country now exports food stuffs abroad whilst many away from Ashgabat suffer from rationing and privation. His regime is either prepared to sell overseas for a higher price than what it could be feeding its own people with for less, or we are simply seeing another attempt to present a picture of everything being fine in a country where it clearly isn’t.

Far from being a “Motherland of Prosperity” Turkmenistan, or should I say Berdymukhamedow who is in effect Turkmenistan, opts for a different route for the nation’s now shrinking financial resources than ensuring his people’s needs are met. Countless billions, not millions, have been splayed across Ashgabat, now the most ‘marbled’ city on earth, and on bizarre narcissism designed to (self) deify the nation’s Arkadag(protector). Surely one of the many conditions of being your country’s champion is to carefully steward its finite resources for the betterment of the many, not to instead glorify imagined greatness that cannot even be considered to be specious. Quite simply, without the topographical good fortune of sitting atop vast reserves of hydrocarbons the former dentist would hardly have vied to become the former Soviet republic’s second president. If Turkmenistan had been a Yemen, not a Qatar, there would have been no recourse for Berdymukhamedow to indulge his vulgar, vainglorious excesses.

A ‘protector’ would have ensured that a Sovereign Wealth Fund had been created as soon as the extent of the wealth beneath the Caspian Sea became clear. Whilst lavish but pointless Potemkin-esque projects are as hollow to the nation as their physical depth it is to the likes of Dubai and Abu Dhabi where the world inevitably turns for genuine examples of a regime planning for a future without oil. Tangible investment within the Emirates creates tourism and wealth creation opportunities in real time, whilst an expanded portfolio of overseas interests ensures a diverse portfolio that creates perpetual returns. Turkmenistan has an empty golf course (designed and inaugurated by Jack Nicklaus), a multi-billion-dollar Falcon-shaped airport terminal building that few will ever visit, and Awaza, a purpose-built Caspian Sea resort without actual purpose. These and more are quite aside from the numerous examples of statuary erected as paeans to the president. Any loose comparison to a vestige of a Sovereign Wealth Fund conceived for a rainy day is instead, allegedly, holed up in several German bank accounts to the tune of $23 billion. Quite who siphoned off this amount, comparable to the GDP of neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, and for what reason remains unclear, but it would certainly make for a useful nest egg should, hypothetically, a sitting president ever need to flee into exile.

All the while, with a rumoured $23 billion squirreled away overseas and queueing and rationing commonplace for basic everyday necessities, Turkmenistan’s population are expected to accept that as a country its self-proclaimed success story is able to provide other nations with foodstuffs. Charity only begins at home if your town/city is fortunate to be the beneficiary of the next project dedicated to white pachyderm, or the president in statue-form oversees daily queues for food.

Such a duplicitous setting where cardboard solar panels and wind turbines pay homage to Potemkin and legerdemain is hardly conducive to the European Commission extending an olive branch towards Turkmenistan and the Central Asian region as a whole, crucially seeking partnerships with regimes ‘willing and able’ to cooperate. Quite how far this institute of the EU hopes to effectuate change in Turkmenistan is unclear and whilst relations with some neighbouring states within the Central Asian sphere are already at an advanced stage, a desire to improve human rights and encourage pluralism within the media, as well as rights for women and religious expression are likely to be paid lip service without any actual desire to deviate from the status quo.

Arbitrary imprisonment and forced labour within the country’s cotton fields add further stains to Berdymukhamedow’s rap sheet and whilst he will view European interest in Turkmenistan as a way to extricate what he can from their blandishments, it will also give further fuel to the fire that international condemnation of multifarious facets of the current regime doesn’t prevent a desire to get involved with rogue/failed states.

It should be blatantly clear to the European Commission tasked with implementing its rebooted Central Asia strategy that a region, albeit of only five states – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan – cannot be dealt with as a whole, with a one size fits all approach. It is though in Turkmenistan where the greatest, I would suggest insurmountable challenges lie. If the overall success or failure of the EU’s latest Central Asia stratagem rests on precipitating change within Berdymukhamedow’s world, it should realistically prepare itself for disappointment.

Source material and further information:

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: http://www.rferl.org/a/turkmen-leader-hails-generous-harvests-despite-food-shortages/29947575.html and https://www.rferl.org/a/european-commission-adopts-new-strategy-on-central-asia/29941932.html

Eurasianet: https://eurasianet.org/turkmenistan-a-grain-of-untruth and https://eurasianet.org/turkmenistan-puttin-on-the-pits