It is unclear if Armenian president Armen Sarkissian is completely ignorant of the ruinous cul-de-sac down which President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow is taking Turkmenistan, or if the content of a recent letter to his despotic counterpart to mark the annual Day of Neutrality was intended to be so ironic that it veered towards black comedy.

Intending to strike a congratulatory tone with Ashgabat Sargissian’s words of wisdom and cognisance of the realities of everyday life under Berdymukhamedow’s failed presidency included praise for Turkmenistan’s citizens, who are seemingly preoccupied with establishing harmonious relations with neighbouring state whilst queuing at ATMs and for basic foodstuffs whilst their leader blows money on statues, including of horses and dogs, and other futile vanity projects.

Going further to wish the people of Turkmenistan peace and prosperity it isn’t though from outside the country’s borders where a threat to such existential ideals emanates, but from their own president. Ruling the hydrocarbon-rich country in a North Korea-lite manner has resulted in a heavily surveilled, paranoid society that fears being ‘shopped’ by their nearest and dearest for even the most trivial ‘offences’. There is little in the way of societal peace in Berdymukhamedow’s Turkmenistan, where democracy is non-existent, access to food and hard cash are far from guaranteed and any form of public, and even privately expressed dissent is brutally squashed.

Any country where hydrocarbon wealth is the main source of income is by default characterised as prosperous, but in Turkmenistan this has not translated into an equitable society replete with opportunity, abundance, and stability. It is arguable that the country is the most corrupt, unbalanced nation on earth today, where the country’s riches are used by the president as if they are his own, earned from his wisdom, ingenuity, and acuity of mind. Sitting atop vast reserves of gas and/or oil is nothing but quirks of nature and kismet, and sadly fertile territory for opportunist dictators. It goes without saying that had Turkmenistan been a Yemen rather than a Qatar of Central Asia, the dentist of previous ruler Saparmurat Niyazov wouldn’t have been as eager to become the fledgling nation’s second president.

Turkmenistan’s neutrality which would seem to distance itself from wading into conflicts outside of its own sovereign territory is at odds with Berdymukhamedow seemingly being at war with his own people. Using the country as a blank canvas on which to display his crass vulgarity the president appears to regard his countrymen as beneath him and with disdain, people not to be trusted or regarded with compassion. Ostensibly his madcap projects, including a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, Awaza coastal resort, and the falcon-shaped airport terminal building, the latter costing a reported $2 billion, are ‘for the people’ but in reality are the result of Berdymukhamedow’s wild flights of fancy often the preserve of the monied, and vainglorious.

Projects conceived for self-deification and to elevate Turkmenistan, sorry the president, to an imagined position of power within the region and wider world are in actuality more of the white elephant variety, which will wither on the vine and fall into inevitable disrepair. If nothing else, these schemes and more to complement countless examples of statuary were built at the president’s behest because quite simply he could, with nobody to stop him. Those closest to him often benefit from securing construction contracts, inflated far and away above the market rate. The only limitations seemingly being his own imagination and the country’s shrinking deposit account.

If therefore Turkmenistan’s much vaunted place on the list of neutral countries seems perverse and ironic, that’s because it is. Berdymukhamedow’s peace, prosperity, wealth and happiness are not in doubt as he regards himself as Turkmenistan, and not just its commander in chief. Neutrality ensures that Turkmenistan will not involve itself in conflicts outside of its own borders but in effect is more an isolationist approach adopted to serve the president’s own agenda. Crucially for Berdymukhamedow this stance ensures the international community will continue to pay lip service to those crying foul over Turkmenistan’s appalling Human Rights record and a modus operandi completely at odds with how to run a country, apart from into the ground. More a quid pro quo arrangement, President Berdymukhamedow wishes to deter prying eyes from seeing how he uses his country as his private playground and theme park, somewhat conflicting with the image he wishes to portray through a succession of Potemkin-esque projects. It is though impossible in the modern era, even for dictatorships, to completely sanitise what appears online; should the preferred image of Turkmenistan that Berdymukhamedow wishes to present be in the public domain, he should also expect the treatment of workers shanghaied to bring the country’s cotton cash crop to market to equally present a pertinent snapshot of the grim reality he has thrust upon the nation.

More a spoilt big kid than a head of state, the 62-year old can stamp his foot to get what he wants, with nobody within or outside of Turkmenistan willing or able to take on a country carefully dressed as a neutral, pacific nation but one in reality being taken on a nightmare journey towards oblivion.

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