Turkmenistan sits by dint of pure kismet atop vast seams of hydrocarbon wealth, much of which has been squandered by the two dictators its citizens’ have had the misfortune to be ruled by since seceding from the Soviet Union nearly three decades ago.

Today, its people might as well be living in impoverished Yemen, a country with a fraction of the fossil fuel reserves available to the central Asian state, but where similar injustices and poverty reflect a nation without access to such life-changing amounts of gas and oil fields, and their commensurate numerical riches. It is though in Turkmenistan where one could be forgiven for thinking that such subterranean fortune had eluded its reported six million inhabitants, a figure hotly disputed by all evidence pointing to the real, rounded down number perhaps a third less than the official version.

One does not associate the queuing by citizens for basic foodstuffs with the image of a nation replete with high-demand non-renewables. This though is the reality in a country that has frittered away untold billions of dollars on vanity projects in which packs of roaming white elephants are often the only visitors. Throw in the president’s love of bizarre statuary commemorating anything from horses, bicycles, to himself that do not lack in modesty, poor taste, or expense spared, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow continues to exhibit a tacit desire to make Turkmenistan his own personal playground, where through his country’s official stance of Neutrality prying eyes from the outside into his country’s affairs are just as unwelcome as much as he forsakes the welfare of his own citizens – seen more as an impediment to his relentless pursuit of self-deification.

Most nations whose income relies on what lies beneath establish Sovereign Wealth Funds(SWF) that ensure economic diversification once the taps begin to run dry by producing alternative revenue streams, thus preventing a scenario of the chickens returning home to roost from all the eggs being placed in one basket. Perhaps Berdymukhamedow assumes his deserted capital Ashgabat, the most marbled city on earth, and Potemkin-esque coastal resort of Awaza are SWF projects of sorts that will bring in the revenue once the Caspian Sea has given up its last cubic metre of gas. Whilst such thinking is unlikely, this outcome will only theoretically arise once the president has long since left the building, into exile or otherwise.

It is unclear just how long Turkmenistan’s gas reserves will last. Although all well and good to say it has x amount of years remaining based on annual domestic consumption, notwithstanding disputes and fluctuations in demand the overwhelming amount of its hydrocarbon assets head towards Russia and China, two huge, insatiable markets. The long-running saga of the TAPI – Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India – pipeline represents a diversification of sorts, albeit within the country’s core revenue maker, but reaching cross-border consensus with a war-torn state and two others who are the best of enemies is by no means a foregone conclusion. Opening up other markets for its non-renewables is one thing, prudently using the revenue garnered from them is quite another.

Aside from an obsession with marble – former dentist Berdymukhamedow obviously has a thing for white that can hide the rot beneath – native horses, and being seen cycling, drifting around in high-performance vehicles and schmoozing with dim-witted, ignorant, or simply venal Western celebrities, can it be demonstrably proven where all the money goes? A land of plenty it is not for the everyday citizens not feasting at the master’s table, many who have been pictured scavenging through bins, queuing at ATM machines and for flour, bread, and cooking oil. It would though seem that Berdymukhamedow has a sizable household to take care of, at the expense of the much larger Turkmen family to whom he is meant to be their guiding light on the path to enlightenment.

Footage has emerged of a distant relative of the president enjoying all the privileges, and many more besides, of a lifestyle to make both Mammon and Croesus blush. The individual in question is so far removed from Berdymukhamedow that an official familial term for the son of a brother of the president’s brother-in-law does not readily come to mind, nor should he be the recipient of such unearned, financial favour.

Such grotesque largesse lavished on seemingly anyone with their feet under the president’s table does though highlight Berdymukhamedow’s dictator credentials, to whom in the modern era only Kim Jong-un can surpass. It is only a lack of a nuclear capability which prevents Turkmenistan from occupying the top tier of tyrannical states, although arguably the free-pass given to Ashgabat by the international community is something, notwithstanding Pyongyang’s tiresome sabre-rattling and threats of warmongering, that Kim would presumably prefer. With an entourage unknown in number and status, familial and crony, it would seem that the country’s open chequing account is accessible to a wide circle of Berdymukhamedow’s extended family and toadying lickspittle, although the very arbitrary nature of a dictator’s characteristic frequent changes of heart ensures that those in favour may not always be so.

There is though compelling evidence featured in a YouTube clip brought to light by Eurasianet(see link below) of the astonishing excesses that even a distant ‘through marriage’ relative of Berdymukhamedow can enjoy, pouring further oil on the plight of hardworking citizens who expect little but receive less whilst the country’s wealth is blown on high-end consumables and materialism by vainglorious cling-ons without any credentials – other than to have completely by chance hit the jackpot through a tenuous connection to the ruling administration. For anyone in doubt as to the real motivation of the president’s behaviour and iron-fisted reign over Turkmenistan, we only have to view the gluttonous consumption and vacuous life of Kemal Rejepov as the egregious public face of a vile totalitarian regime that hides behind meticulously choreographed photo opportunities, and outwardly benevolent but strongman shows of strength and prowess – all in the name of filling citizens with the fear of their own nation’s deity.

With great wealth comes responsibility to steward it wisely, not only in the here and now but also in a way that provides for and acknowledges a changing future. In examples of countries and individuals who through no reasons other than fate, chance, and strategic manoeuvring into favour have all the money and more for which they could ever wish personality traits redolent with the worst of human tendencies have through the ages reared their ugly heads, assuming themselves to be untouchable and worthy of a higher realm. In this sense life today is no different than past millennia, but while those of this persuasion should beware the Ides of March and enjoy their fleeting gorging from Turkmenistan’s trough while they can, there does not appear to be a likelihood any time soon that the heavily entrenched and probable dynastic status quo will be defenestrated from power.

Source material and further information:

Eurasianet: https://eurasianet.org/turkmenistan-birthday-boy-blows-off-putin