As one of the handful of countries who protest against the existence of novel coronavirus within its borders, authoritarian Turkmenistan is not an outright denier of Covid-19 bus has simply insisted that it has not transgressed from, for example, neighbouring Iran which in the early days of the pandemic was one of the most affected, and infected, countries.

It is though not beyond the malevolent dictator of the former Soviet republic, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow, to believe that the virus could not exist within Turkmenistan, by dint of his unerring status as the country’s Arkadag(protector), during a self-deified reign over what he regards as Central Asia’s Shangri-La. In the mind of Berdymukhamedow it would just not be possible for Turkmenistan to suffer such an indignity on his watch, instead viewing the crisis as an affront to him instead of ensuring the citizens he cares little for are protected from the remainder of the first wave, and before its projected second coming begins in earnest.

Controlling the narrative is important to any dictator, who sets the bar high in public and must therefore maintain an image of strength to justify their self-styled superiority and maintain the pretence. For Berdymukhamedow to publicly confess that novel coronavirus has arrived in Turkmenistan would presumably be too much for his ego to handle, seemingly dropping him back into the pack of less-venerated rulers without his perceived magic touch. What though is portrayed to an otherwise weary, oppressed general public with the fully signed up, brainwashed unsurprisingly few in number, will rarely represent the reality behind closed doors. Accepting being a run of the mill chancer who fell on his feet in a country whose riches are garnered from what fortuitously lies beneath might be a bitter pill for the president to swallow, but such a public persona would crush Berdymukhamedow’s brittle, capricious ego.

Billions of dollars have been wasted during the Berdymukhamedow presidency, mostly on projects that are outwardly designed to display Turkmen ingenuity and its worthy presence on the global stage. Again, not only does this position exist entirely in the mind of the president and his circle of cronies, but represents Berdymukhamedow believing that he is the country, and is bigger than it, with each statue and Potemkin project instead reflecting the whims and dubious tastes of someone let loose with a stolen charge card. Less about Turkmen industriousness and imagination the president is simply doing as he wishes with the country’s money, in the full knowledge that nobody can stop him turning the country into his own personal playground.

There is no little irony that while Turkmenistan financially relies on what lies beneath, scratching the country’s political surface brings about a different reality altogether. Assuming that even some of the harrowing stories escaping the clutches of official news outlets and those tasked with bowdlerizing the actuality of Covid-19-related fatalities and a lack of functional ventilators are true, a recent visit by the World Health Organization(WHO) offered little to disprove that Turkmenistan is virus free on what was an escorted tour of the country’s best facilities, as part of an itinerary carefully crafted by the regime. It would be easy for the World Health Organisation’s representatives to say that contrary to what appears to be all well and good there must be novel coronavirus cases within the country, simply because there must be, without physical proof witnessed first-hand to conclude as such leaves it as much a Paper Tiger as other worldwide agencies who fail to adequately deal with Berdymukhamedow’s inexorable destruction of Turkmenistan.

The squandered money at the expense of citizens who often queue for basic foodstuffs and a reported $23 billion of Turkmen money squirreled away in German bank accounts – a veritable king’s ransom but barely a useful slush fund for Berdymukhamedow should he ever need to join King Juan Carlos in exile – has not though dissuaded the European Union(EU) from formulating a financial aid package for Turkmenistan, slated to run between 2021-2027. How does a self-sufficient country, albeit one that has frittered away its wealth on vanity schemes at the expense of creating a lasting Sovereign Wealth Fund(SWF) for when the hydrocarbon taps run dry, manage to elicit such help from the EU? Perhaps swayed by the realities under which most of Turkmenistan’s citizens live, the European Union would do well to remember that life need not be like that for those not among the president’s favoured few. The criterion for EU assistance should not amount to any state being bailed out when the money that did once, after all, exist, start to run out from its own doing.

I can only assume that the EU does not like what it sees in Turkmenistan but is loathed to openly criticize the ruling regime. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the West might one day require gas from beneath the Caspian Sea, resulting in an uncomfortable but pragmatic approach of keeping one’s friends close, etc, etc. Notwithstanding the ability, more now in the past tense, of Turkmenistan being able to adequately feed, clothe, educate, and house its citizens, the EU are unlikely to turn a blind eye to cases of unmet need in Central Asia, although ring fencing money for particular areas of want does not automatically guarantee that is where it will be spent.

Indeed, Berdymukhamedow’s continued denial of Covid-19 within Turkmenistan might be just another act of leverage to extricate vital medical supplies and testing kits from countries friendly to the regime, as recently donations from Turkey and United Arab Emirates(UAE) would suggest. It would seem that ties run deep within the Turkic brotherhood and fellow hydrocarbon leviathans. Such benefaction does though suggest that underneath the solidarity within kindness exists a need for outside nations, despite Turkmenistan’s avowed position of Neutrality, to control the Covid-19 narrative as they too tacitly conclude that it would be impossible for the country to have dodged the virus. This mindset would suggest that it is better for Turkmenistan to quietly control the virus whilst still insisting all is well than continue a policy of denial while it loses a grip on what the reality actually consists of.

Truth among paranoia and hubris will remain in short supply while Berdymukhamedow paints Turkmenistan but more specifically his (mal)administration of the country in a brighter light than the dark actuality. I have long pondered that the countries citizens are an impediment to the president’s aims – an inconvenience which he could well do without. As long as there are sufficient numbers of shanghaied cotton field workers and foreign workers to develop the country’s hydrocarbon sector, Covid-19 might be seen by the president as an opportunity to have fewer Joe Publics and his kith and kin to consider. If they must be spared from the pandemic, it seems Berdymukhamedow is happy for others to foot the bill.

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