The timing of a demand made of many of Turkmenistan’s state workers situated in the Dashoguz region to take their vacations in the Caspian Sea resort of Awaza, the site of one of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow’s many high-profile, exorbitantly costly and ultimately futile pet projects, could hardly have been worse.

Faced with the bizarre ultimatum to populate the glitzy, Potemkin-esque holiday complex conceived by man-of-the-people Berdymukhamedow or face the sack, those planning their precious vacations have in effect had the job done for them – at a price. With a ten-day bed and breakfast package costing approximately three times an average monthly salary it is perhaps the equivalent of those in the West splurging £6,000 to holiday somewhere not of their choosing, or indeed in a location which they would freely choose.

It seems perverse, even by Turkmenistan standards in a country where the president treats his subjects in the manner a lepidopterist would pin down a still alive butterfly, that a shortage of hard currency at ATM’s just happens to coincide with many being told where to vacation. Already angered by a third of the country’s population having left the building during his reign, Berdymukhamedow now seems determined to ensure that those who remain are left in no doubt what he has, in his mind, done for them and the country. If that requires an official decree on where some should holiday, so be it.

The mind of an autocratic ruler appears to be wired to assume the position of a deity – initially through a process of self-deification, that will eventually, he assumes, translate into the nation’s people worshiping at his marbled altar. It is quite inconceivable to those of a dictatorial bent that the population will take exception to being kept under the boot and the need to queue for basic foodstuffs, whilst state-of-the-art German surveillance equipment monitor their every move.

There is absolutely no equivocation in the mind of an absolutist ruler that the nation’s hydrocarbon wealth should instead be used to make Turkmenistan’s society a more just and prosperous place for all – where would be the fun in that? Instead of facilitating the infrastructure and logistical necessities to evenly distribute the country’s everyday needs the president instead prefers to commission projects that are predicated on bringing glory on his wisdom and vision, and to showcase the country to those abroad as something it completely isn’t.

The building of a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and a $2 billion falcon-inspired airport terminal are not acts of altruism or evidence of a Sovereign Wealth Fund having been formed from the proceeds of historic hydrocarbon sales, but extensions to Berdymukhamedow’s insatiable ego that he does exactly what he pleases because he can, with all flickers of political opposition within the country having been extinguished and Turkmenistan’s neutral stance cleverly serving to head off criticism or action from other nations.

The recent deal with energy giant Gazprom to supply Russia with Turkmen gas represents a mere fraction of previous accords between the two countries. What it does though facilitate is a further revenue stream for the president to once more think big towards his next projects. The reality that a hydrocarbon-rich nation suffers economic hardship whether or not it finds additional customers for its Caspian Sea-riches paints a damning picture of the whole rotten regime and its cronies, with perhaps only Venezuela of the other nations rich in fossil fuels going through the same, or similar, dictator-led madness.

The terms of the Gazprom deal have not been spelled out, although this is hardly a departure from what has long since been the norm. It is for instance doubtful that China pays the going rate, if anything, for Turkmen gas it receives. As with many examples around the globe of a growing Sino influence a quid pro quo arrangement of the building of infrastructure, or simply financially bailing out a floundering nation usually comes with gaining access to its raw materials or in this case, hydrocarbons. Although there is nothing to suggest a similar arrangement between Turkmenistan and Gazprom it is unlikely the regime would allow the deal’s small print into the public domain and prompt uncomfortable questions as to where the money will be spent/has gone, if that of course isn’t already obvious.

Completely without coincidence after announcing fresh re-engagement with Gazprom the president seemed emboldened to announce a new round of spending, not on housing, food security, or medical provision for the nation but to underpin the construction of a capacious congress centre, accompanying hotel(presumably of the luxurious type) and upgraded banking headquarters.  It is moot as to whether the vacant lot needed to bring the scheme into reality, reportedly the size of Moscow’s Red Square and perhaps for the time being still a dusty piece of desert, will be as much use now to the country’s long-term economic prosperity as what could be one of Asia’s biggest, almost certainly permanently-empty buildings. For the good of the nation? Tell that to those desperate to leave it, for somewhere with regular employment and relatively better access to even the most basic of foodstuffs.

Subsumed by the bubble in which distances the president from everyday reality and the reasons for mass emigration the drastic reduction in Turkmenistan’s population so irked Berdymukhamedow that a fresh census was ordered, painting a graver picture yet. I have often wondered though if a rapidly shrinking population was something with which the president would be comfortable, giving him more scope to shrink the state and less hoi polloi to concern himself with as he embarks upon remodelling the country from a blank canvas to the physical depiction of his wildest materialistic fantasies. Despite there being some credence to a ‘president for life’ having such an outlook it instead appears that he is enraged and taken aback by his citizens deserting the Elysian paradise he is tirelessly creating for them. It is nevertheless surprising that an autocracy actually allowed such damning data to seep out.

In a country extremely hard to access and one getting much harder to leave, the building of showy hotels and an obscenely expensive ornithological-inspired airport terminal seems contradictory but elicit few raised eyebrows from the international community. Now, as President Berdymukhamedow seeks to raise the bar of his ambitions yet higher a compelling argument for further gargantuan edifices to resound to the sound of nothingness has not been made, nor will be. That though isn’t what ultimately matters in the world of a dictator with the country’s cheque book in his back pocket.

It is purely about him, and  will always centre upon what was delivered into reality during a time in Turkmenistan’s history that is arguably darker than at any point under Soviet rule. From darkness comes light, but no amount of shimmering marble in Ashgabat can hide the grim reality of life in this Central Asian dystopia.

Source material and further information:

Radio Free Europe/Liberty: www.rferl.org/a/avaza-awaza-turkmen-officials-forced-to-spend-vacations-overpriced-state-resort/30041754.html

Eurasianet: https://eurasianet.org/turkmenistan-make-deals-against-a-sea-of-troubles

The Times(UK) – Subscription required for full access: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/turkmenistan-dictator-in-a-rage-as-his-people-flee-9sbm0sblc