A shortage of hard currency in Turkmenistan is hardly a new phenomenon, at least for the everyday man in the street. Queuing at cash machines(ATMs) is as commonplace a facet of everyday life in this former Soviet republic of Central Asia as the spin promulgated by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow’s regime opining that all is otherwise well in the country, if it wasn’t for misfiring government officials who continually miss their targets. Problems such as cash flow are therefore never the fault of the profligate, vainglorious president, but that of the unfortunate stooges installed to take the rap for his bumbling, damaging reign.
Queuing for money, at least in Turkmenistan, is though starting to become somewhat passé, so yesterday. As citizens who reside away from the capital Ashgabat struggle to access their wages and pensions at ATMs desperate times call for similar measures. My initial reaction to hearing news of lines forming outside the Uzbek Embassy in Ashgabat containing Turkmen seeking visas to enter the neighbouring country, was that it was just another example of the massed ranks of unemployed vying for permission to find work outside of their homeland. Whilst there is a definite grain of truth to my default suspicions therein lies only a small part of what is an incredible situation unfolding within much of Turkmenistan; incredible for many reasons.
We cannot avoid the fact that countries replete with hydrocarbons, if managed correctly, have the power to effectuate positive change for all its people. Therein lies the rub; Turkmenistan has been stewarded entirely for the whims and ends of its current president whose spending splurges on white elephant, Potemkin-esque vanity projects – call them what you will – have been at the expense of a population which has apparently dropped by a third from the official figure, 5.4 to 3.6 million, as many seek solutions elsewhere. With a reported unemployment rate of 50% and a capital city that consists of the greatest amount of marble on earth but resembling a post-apocalyptic ghost town, the only part of Turkmenistan for whom President Berdymukhamedow is working for is himself.
I earlier mentioned the word incredible, and how its use covers a multitude of sins. We have already touched upon the country’s wealth being blown on pointless projects designed to highlight the president’s self-styled wisdom and greatness, all the while dressed up as Turkmenistan’s ingenuity and modernity. This serves only to reaffirm the feeling that Berdymukhamedow regards himself as the country’s leitmotif whilst Ashgabat in particular acts as a blank canvas on which he can create his most outlandish schemes, unabashed and unopposed. Far from being a celebration of the achievements and prudent use of Turkmenistan’s finite resources each new statue, golf course, and airport terminal building is a reflection of him, Mr. Turkmenistan, and not an accurate portrayal of a young but proud nation being destroyed by a deluded, narcissistic individual with both hands firmly on its cheque book.
It is therefore incredible that a country one would still regard as wealthy on paper has managed to wreck its own economy to an extent where perhaps half of its working population are jobless. Even in a country that embraces the antithesis of democracy, one would find it difficult outside of North Korea, a nation without Turkmenistan’s hydrocarbon riches, to find such a tragic example of modern-day despotism. What though is the more incredible is that Turkmen are queuing for permission to enter Uzbekistan not for bona fide employment opportunities but to access their own money, or for a black-market intermediary to do so for them subject to a fee, and a whole raft of PIN numbers. Not conventional forms of work, admittedly, but an increasing number of resourceful citizens are becoming couriers of their countrymen’s money and making a living for themselves in the process, something otherwise virtually impossible in large swathes of Turkmenistan.
There are obvious risks with entrusting a willing but perhaps otherwise unknown individual with a PIN code and access to a bank account but for those queuing who aren’t one of the lucky few to eventually snag an Uzbek travel visa the use of a third-party is the only remaining option. Again, I will use the word incredible, if only to shine a light on the extreme hardship being felt by and inflicted upon citizens living above such vast fossil fuel wealth, much of which they will never derive any benefit from. Such resourcefulness to access their own money in a neighbouring country is to be applauded and lamented in equal measure.
There are perhaps thousands of online articles that present the harrowing facts to an otherwise ignorant world of just what is happening in Turkmenistan, and the collateral damage caused by the president’s reign and a lack of condemnation from the international community. Yet, there always seems to be an underlying, almost gauche air of astonishment that it has come to this. Make no mistake, things will only get worse unless a sweeping regime change occurs, and not one that merely hands over the reins to Berdymukhamedow’s son, Serdar.
Birds of a feather flock together, an aphorism mostly used in modern parlance to describe those of dubious character and often the most malevolent of tendencies. It should then come as no surprise that Prince Andrew, disgraced by his association with the now deceased Jeffrey Epstein, counted during his role with UK Trade & Investment(UKTI) President Berdymukhamedow as a name in his Rolodex, perhaps a link to Queen Elizabeth’s middle son’s fondness for a good old fashioned arms deal with the world’s great and good. A lack of scruples shown in many areas of Prince Andrew’s life is astonishing, as is the absence of being reined in by Buckingham Palace long before the highly damaging and embarrassing Epstein affair. Arm deals, dubious in themselves at the best of times, it doesn’t take someone of significant cognitive understanding to conclude that many nations sourcing arms often do so with a view to potentially use them against their own people. By thy company be known.
Another fine member of the Petrochemical elite, Qatar, recently met officials from Turkmenistan in what amounted to a mutual back scratching exercise to outline potential future collaboration between the two nations. Quite aside from the specious reasoning that granted Qatar with the 2022 Football World Cup the human rights abuses that have been committed to build the stadia required for soccer’s global showpiece highlights how forced labour is alive and well, in its many forms, during the 21st century. The potential for the sharing of knowledge on this subject between Turkmenistan and Qatar, the cotton industry of the former routinely using shanghaied workers from other walks of life, will presumably not be lost on either nation. Notwithstanding the madness of holding an intense, month-long event in dangerously high temperatures the shameful ‘plenty where they come from’ attitude towards Nepalese, Bangladeshi, and Indian migrant workers building the one use, white elephant stadia (another synergy with Turkmenistan) should compel nations to boycott the 2022 festivities. This of course will not happen.
Whether it be for futile projects to announce a deluded leader to the world or for the world’s richest sport to showcase its exponents and the selling of its soul to a conglomerate of corporate giants, it appears that no end of money can be found. Should though you be an ordinary, unconnected citizen of Turkmenistan or a seemingly expendable migrant worker, cash is neither a privilege nor a right. Portraying attitudes of superiority over and distaste of those deemed lower down the food chain, the leaders of hydrocarbon-rich countries will do well to remind themselves that far from ingenuity and wisdom enabling them and a select few to gorge themselves from a trough of plenty, a quirk of geographical, and geological kismet has enabled them to access wealth, beneath their feet, beyond their wildest dreams.
The measure of a ruler and that of the country over which he reigns is how such fortune is used to benefit all, in real-time and through the creation of a Sovereign Wealth Fund(SWF), for the common good and not self-deification. Without Turkmenistan’s gas industry Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow would probably not have been so eager to be president, instead continuing to be a dentist. Only the extraction of he and his family from a controlling interest in Turkmenistan will stop the country sliding into certain oblivion.
Further information and source material:
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: http://www.rferl.org/a/turkmen-turn-to-uzbekistan-to-stem-major-cash-shortage/30278900.html
Amnesty International: http://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2016/03/qatar-world-cup-of-shame/