On December 23rd 1995 the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution that recognized Turkmenistan as a permanently neutral state. This process into obscurity and ultimate hermitude had in effect begun three years previously, when a newly independent Turkmenistan outlined the strands of its foreign policy at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe(OSCE) summit in Helsinki. Little could fellow attendees have known at the time just what neutrality would mean for Turkmenistan, its citizens, and two despotic presidents who plotted a course to bring the country to heel, and ultimately to its knees.

Remaining on the side-lines and abstract from trading blocs and military alliances suggests that countries following such a course are self-sufficient, non-aggressive, and perhaps are not expected to court attention for the wrong reasons. In what can be viewed as a pacific stance it is though often a position adopted by those who do not wish for prying eyes to espy what is occurring within its own borders. Less a non-confrontational mindset intent on peace and harmony in a continually troubled world, more a ‘keep your nose out, and we’ll do the same’ attitude amounting, in the case of Turkmenistan, to outright Isolationism and only dealing with outsiders on its own terms.

A recent exhibition in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat sought to celebrate 25 years of neutrality in the country, showcasing carefully choreographed photographs taken by those whose natural bent for spontaneity and discovering for themselves both the natural beauty and the harsh realities of life in Turkmenistan would have likely been severely compromised. Being told when and where to take photographs, often in Potemkin-esque cityscapes and featuring the well-fed and happy in effect photoshops what lies beneath President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow’s malevolent hold over the central Asian state.

Themes featured within the exhibition included the apparent success of Turkmenistan’s policy of urban construction policy, much of which in reality pertains to a succession of boondoggle projects including homages to horses, cycling, and the president himself, all set within white marble. Such features come at a price and where the president is not directly commemorated, his hobbies and passions are. That though is the point: Berdymukhamedow is the country; it is he.

Photographic evidence of the Turkmenistan that the president would like the world to believe is the reality shows the actual exceptions within the country, but more likely is the result of meticulous orchestration and strict scheduling of when, where, and of whom such scenes could be captured for perpetuity. Despite the regime strictly controlling media output and internet access a steady stream of evidence underscoring Berdymukhamedow’s paranoid control of every facet of life continues to evade censors, penning an alternative narrative of the plight of the country’s people starkly at odds with the official line.

As Turkmenistan celebrates in pictorial form its great achievements within the built environment its citizens are once more forming lengthy queues for even the most basic of foodstuffs. Those whose properties were affected by storm damage are resorting, in the absence of any assistance from central government or the local administration, to selling jewellery, cars, and livestock at knock down rates to survive in the immediate. These are vehicles and farm animals that will otherwise be continually relied upon for income, but have been cashed in for a quick, but only temporary solution. At this point it is wise to remember that Turkmenistan has squandered tens of billions of hydrocarbon dollars($) on vanity projects including resorts, an avian-inspired airport, and facilities few have ever used, or are allowed to. And then there is the reported $23 billion squirreled away in German bank accounts…

Locusts have decimated crops in areas of eastern Turkmenistan but the president is more likely to blame his fellow countrymen for a drop in the wheat yield brought about by pilfering or mismanagement than admit his nation has a problem caused by the destructive, swarming insect. It is far easier to condemn those apparently hellbent on undermining the course for the country that its ‘protector’ has set than apportioning blame on the weather, or even a plague of locust, two areas of life that are even outside Berdymukhamedow’s omnipotence and omniscience.

Amid a backdrop of disregard for the material needs of his countrymen, damaging weather events, and the modern day equivalent of a Biblical plague it is the ever resourceful Turkmen people who have to fend for themselves and seek solutions otherwise not provided by their ‘elected’ dictator. Although much of Turkmenistan’s disappeared wealth was garnered from its enormous but finite hydrocarbon fields its one constant cash crop is cotton, farmed intensively and unforgivingly. Forced labour practices including those shanghaied into working in the fields otherwise at the risk of losing their everyday positions, and in some cases those also of their families, the production and cultivation of the country’s raw cotton has long courted international attention which eventually resulted in the US banning the acquisition of raw cotton and associated products originating from Turkmenistan. In though what is a cut throat and extremely competitive rag trade, cotton in its rawest form and that used in finished products is slipping through the net especially when sourced through Turkish clearing houses, by which time providence is sufficiently opaque to create uncertainty that turns many a blind eye. Turkey is arguably Turkmenistan’s greatest apologist.

It is though on the periphery of many cotton fields where those otherwise struggling in a country of privations overlooked by a malevolent dictatorship have attempted to put food on their tables, and those of others, to not only counter shortages but also earn a greater income than that purely derived from cotton. Little profit is made once expensive production methods have been factored into farm gate prices received by growers from the government, although the state jacks up the price to intermediaries and clothing producers. It is under these circumstances that farmers have used their initiative to cultivate vegetables and melons, which have subsequently been destroyed by the authorities presumably concerned that such desperate measures suggest the country has a food shortage, which of course it has. Fields wholly reserved for the production of cotton must be used entirely for that purpose; such autarky otherwise cuts the state out of any profit garnered from fields it controls, with such enterprise and a damaging image of necessity being the mother of all invention stamped severely out.

A nation with such potential wealth, albeit vastly diminished by a president who uses the country’s checking account as his own, cannot feed its own people who in turn attempt, in such small ways, to do it themselves. Pride, greed, fear from and caused by a ruinous, egocentric, and Narcissistic regime have left those tasked – if they value their careers, lives, and that of their families – with implementing the president’s policies little choice but to do so.

Turkmenistan is one of the few fortunate countries of the world where Covid-19 has not made its presence known. In keeping with a utopian image correlative with Berdymukhamedow’s self-deified, faultless, and sagacious presidency novel coronavirus has apparently not troubled the country, a tacit admission that it more than likely has, but again would reflect that all was not well within an otherwise perfectly run nation. As the pandemic has proven to be a leveller among nations developed and less so, affecting prime ministers to the homeless, it is ridiculous but wholly unsurprising and highly in keeping that the incumbent regime in Ashgabat refuses to accept a likely truth.

Perhaps as close as it ever gets to admitting to factoring Covid-19 into its thinking and decision making, the state have banned summer holidays at its showpiece, contrived Caspian Sea resort of Awaza. Numbering just one of the president’s vanity schemes that lacks as much in taste as it does occupancy, Awaza is often the location where civil servants are told to holiday, albeit funded from their own pockets. Now, it seems even those who were previously forced to go to Awaza are now banned from doing so. Only in Turkmenistan could it be illegal to go somewhere where it was once mandatory to do so. The only justification offered by the state for quarantining Awaza is a fear that disposable gloves and other Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) might have drifted across the Caspian from a Covid-infected Iran…

Despite the unprecedented times in which we live that have brought about a new take on Alan Deutschman’s Change or Die title, little has altered in Berdymukhamedow’s parallel universe. Citizens who attempt to change are likely to die; the fate of those who have no choice but to toe the line is sadly also set along the same lines. A state of Neutrality offers only cold comfort.

Source material and further information:

Anadolu Agency Turkey: www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/turkmenistan-hosts-photo-show-on-countrys-neutrality/1841263#

Vestnik Kavkaza (Central Asian locust plagues): https://vestnikkavkaza.net/analysis/Locusts-a-new-trouble-for-Central-Asia.html

Just Style (Cotton sourcing and labour abuses): www.just-style.com/analysis/risk-of-turkmenistan-tainted-cotton-in-turkish-textiles_id138802.aspx

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: www.rferl.org/a/impoverished-turkmen-selling-jewelry-cars-to-buy-food-and-pay-bills/30626235.html

Eurasianet: https://eurasianet.org/turkmenistan-ride-a-white-swan