Turkmenistan’s Ashgabat-City project, provisionally sited to the north of the country’s capital city will, if it ever comes to fruition, be in effect a ‘Greater Ashgabat’ initially designed to be autonomous from the most marbled metropolis on earth. But in light of conjecture surrounding the actual population of the former Soviet republic, just who will reside in this Potemkin city for imaginary people?

The mandatory slick publicity of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow’s latest Shangri-La vision for his impoverished but hydrocarbon-rich country poignantly shows, in what I believe in the end will be a northern marker for Ashgabat urban sprawl, boulevards without the people for whom they are allegedly intended. With a reported disparity in overall population ranging from 3.6 to 5.4 million it is not only mystifying as to whom the new development is aimed, but if in fact Berdymukhamedow prefers his signature capital projects to be unmolested by actual human interaction.

If indeed the president prefers his wide-open spaces to be left for the preserve of his frequent cycling, there is room aplenty in what appears from the artistic impressions to be an interpretation of what a Scientologist might consider to be L. Ron Hubbard’s residence in the afterlife. Again, Berdymukhamedow’s skewed priorities seem to point to his insatiable need for self-deification and proving, with his hand firmly on the country’s cheque-book, that building simply because he can and consolidating his cult of personality, without any tangible opposition to clip his wings, take precedence over feeding those in the provinces queueing for basic foodstuffs.

In an undoubted dichotomy of shrinking the state whilst tightening its grip upon it Berdymukhamedow this week on a trip to Tatarstan expressed his desire for more Turkmen students to complete their studies in the Russian region often described as the country’s Catalonia. It is difficult to say if an official visit to an area of Russia battling to stave off the Kremlin’s desire to water-down the republics identity will be frowned upon by Vladimir Putin, although Turkmenistan’s famously neutral position potentially allows it to skirt around political tensions involving a state within a much larger entity, without actual endorsing either parties standpoint.

Such trips of course amount to little more than an exercise in hackneyed platitudes and speeches long on rhetoric that in the end mean everything but ultimately nothing. Even a reported deal to bring Russian-made KAMAZ trucks to Turkmenistan could not be verified due to wildly fluctuating figures ranging from 250 to 2,000 units within the transaction. It is of course easier for a country to send its students overseas, to Tatarstan or elsewhere, instead of paying for them to be schooled within its own education system. Further hypocrisy is highlighted by the president’s oblique financial priority of surveilling Turkmen students studying abroad instead of providing the conditions within the country for them to willingly stay.

It is to be assumed that the trucks, in whatever number they eventually arrive, are to be used for practical purposes although it cannot be ruled out that they could be requisitioned to participate in a choreographed, synchronized display as part of a homage to the country’s Arkadag (protector). Think of archetypal North Korean and Russian parades of military might but with horses and mass-participation cycling instead of the long-range missiles and goose-stepping, and you’ll get some idea of the mindset of a delusional dictator with a penchant for looking the other way when issues of actual importance demand his attention.

The only reasons the international community humour Berdymukhamedow and overlook the many human rights abuses that serve as a leitmotif to his reign can be found underneath the Caspian Sea, and because of Turkmenistan’s proximity to Afghanistan. The regimes of countries rich in hydrocarbons and moral dubiety will always be indulged, at least until the taps run dry. Foreign companies of fossil-fuel extraction expertise will rarely seek a kaleidoscopic picture of a nation like Turkmenistan in their rush to unearth its subterranean riches. Therein lies the problem, in effect giving autocratic rulers the ammunition of hypocrisy to aim at his detractors.

The potentially porous Afghan frontier and the attendant threat of terrorism spilling over into Turkmenistan will give both Russia and the United States cause for concern, in theory allowing Ashgabat to play each side off against the other without compromising its position of neutrality. Squashing the threat of a rebooted IS or Al-Qaeda is vital for the protection of Turkmenistan’s gas-security and the viability of the long talked of TAPI – Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India – pipeline. An infrastructure project of high value such as this obviously magnetizes terrorists, both in terms of sabotage and to divert supply for their own ends. A routing through Afghanistan is therefore a highly risky venture but without a queue of customers for its gas, Turkmenistan has little choice but to pursue any market available to it.

One wonders how Berdymukhamedow, in his eyes the ultimate statesmen of his time, would react if confronted with a national emergency of such gravity that the realities of it couldn’t be hidden or fudged by the state-controlled media. The real art of governing doesn’t come from dedicating dirges to horses or playing a round of golf with Jack Nicklaus, but by addressing real, everyday problems of his nation’s people. A lack of empathy with those suffering the indignity of queueing for bread and cooking oil is displayed in the president’s financial profligacy on projects predicated on glorifying their progenitor, but with little overall benefit to the nation as a whole.

A country’s people are its biggest asset; it does though seem that instead they are the biggest inconvenience to his absolutist rule.

Source material and further information:

Eurasianet: https://eurasianet.org/turkmenistan-shining-city-upon-a-desert

Orient: https://orient.tm/en/city-in-a-city-mega-project-to-be-implemented-in-ashgabat/