While Turkmenistan continues to stagnate President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow’s policy of presenting a very different image to an increasingly sceptical world shows little sign of slowing.
The reality of citizens queuing for basic foodstuffs, normally in areas away from the prying eyes of the few cameras and curious foreigners who get into the country hardly tallies with Turkmenistan’s hydrocarbon-rich status. The president wishes for the nation’s capital, Ashgabat, the most marbled city in the world, to set the tone when impressing upon those who don’t know any better the material evidence of his assured guidance and protection of the state’s reported 5.5 million citizens. It does not though take much scratching of the surface, even in Ashgabat, for a wholly different actuality to become evident. All that shimmers might indeed be marble but desultory emptiness abounds, serving only to highlight the president’s ego and wild delusions of self-importance precipitated by treating Turkmenistan’s cheques-book as his own.
Aside from Venezuela it is difficult to bring to mind another gas/oil-rich country that has ultimately failed its people. Without daring to suggest that corruption and cronyism is non-existent throughout the Gulf states, where an obsession with once incongruous constructs is arguably no less vulgar than many of Berdymukhamedow’s more outlandish schemes, there are at least concrete plans to future-proof the economy for when the last of the oil has been realized. Investing in real estate, overseas sports teams, and tourism ensures a diverse portfolio of interests within a Sovereign Wealth Fund so lacking in Turkmenistan’s land of make-believe. Indeed, the only hint of a fund, slush or otherwise, has been discovered in numerous German bank accounts totalling $23 billion. Quite why, when, and by whom this was stashed is difficult to say, but such a king’s ransom will surely sate even Berdymukhamedow’s excesses should such a rainy-day nest egg be needed by the president and/or his family, in exile or otherwise. It is though worth reminding the reader that the equivalent of Kyrgyzstan’s Gross National Product(GNP) is being held back from benefiting the development of Turkmenistan, whilst citizens watch Berdymukhamedow blow more money on Potemkin-esque schemes from their queues for flour and cooking oil.
How much is being spent by Turkmenistan on its pavilion at World Expo 2020 in Dubai can only be estimated, but 50-metre-wide walls hosting LED screens showing the world what Berdymukhamedow wants it to see will not come cheap. Perhaps the irony of the event being staged in Dubai will be lost on those responsibly for failing to create a viable future for Turkmenistan, a concept at least the United Arab Emirates’ states have grasped. Further irony suggests the horse-inspired pavilion, as a homage to the Akhal-Teke breed, an all-consuming passion of the president, will promise much from its facade but leave visitors bemused, and disappointed, on entering the building. Obvious comparisons can be made with many of the country’s newest edifices that lack interior substance, with even some solar panels rumoured to be made from cardboard. Again, it should be noted that Berdymukhamedow is more concerned with projecting his narcissism and skewed take on life at the helm of a country failing under his stewardship, than ensuring the basic material needs of his people are being met.
One school of thought suggests that the president is turning the country into his own private playground due to Turkmenistan’s rapidly diminishing population. With less people to maintain government expenditure will in theory dramatically decrease, whilst gas and cotton revenues are technically unaffected by how many people reside in the former Soviet republic. Such arguably specious reasoning only goes so far before it is pointed out that a shrinking population reduces the workforce needed in both the country’s cash crops. Although it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that foreign exploration companies will bring in their own expertise, the annual cotton harvest is almost entirely reliant on ‘volunteers’, those shanghaied from their everyday occupations to assist in the fields. Sanctions levied against those failing to comply, stump up the cash to buy oneself out or not producing an alternative ‘volunteer’ can vary but the loss of status within one’s workplace, even at the expense of their employment altogether are not uncommon.
There does though seem to be an almost bipolar approach within the country to Turkmenistan’s depopulation. Official figures suggest that 5-4-5.7 million reside within the country but with close to 2 million citizens emigrating over the last decade the actual population could now be as little as 3.5 million. Whilst some attempts at preventing those under 40 from permanently leaving have occurred, it cannot honestly be said that a concerted effort to keep a nation’s most valuable resource, its people, has been undertaken if such a huge proportion have already upped sticks. Such a shrinking of the state, both in terms of population and the need for the incumbent administration to maintain those remaining enables the president to concentrate on turning Turkmenistan into a large Neverland-style playground, where his tastes and hobbies can be lavishly indulged. The greater the population disappears, the more Berdymukhamedow can commission foreign companies, bringing their own workforce, to build the next phase of his dreamscape. Whilst dissension from opposition groups is at an all-time low – it isn’t worth risking life and limb to speak up against the regime – the loss of more Turkmen to the nation only lessens an already slim chance yet further of insurrection ever breaking out. Perhaps such reasoning isn’t as specious as first thought.
Without a cogent plan for the country’s future Turkmenistan is slipping into extremely dangerous territory. Will a time come when the second-hand marble market is flooded with pieces of Ashgabat being sold off to financially prop up the country? As ridiculous as that sounds there will, after the Caspian Sea has given up the last of its gas reserves, be little else left in the country of fiscal value. It is little wonder that international firms, many being from Germany, are, whilst they can, placing financial opportunities within Turkmenistan ahead of the moral considerations attached to the country’s many Human Rights violations. Why else, really, would for example Lufthansa, one of the world’s most reliable and otherwise respected airlines get involved with aiding Turkmenistan in assisting its flag carrier, recently banned Europe-wide, from regaining airworthiness?
In a country lacking any media freedom unless it is state-sanctioned, the unalloyed truth is hard to come by. Wherever though veracity may lie, it is guaranteed to be stranger than fiction. It is though sad that so many people are adversely affected by a ruinous regime frequently depicted in the media as harmlessly eccentric, and comedic. If any of the truth is certain, the everyday reality for those left in Turkmenistan is anything but.
Further information and source material:
Trend News Agency: https://en.trend.az/casia/turkmenistan/3071275.html
Petroleum Economist: https://en.trend.az/casia/turkmenistan/3071275.html
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: http://www.rferl.org/a/escape-from-turkmenistan-almost-2-million-have-fled-but-the-president-won-t-hear-of-it/29987972.html