For most expats, Turkmenistan or for the purposes of this exercise its capital Ashgabat, would not rank highly on a list of locations they expect to find themselves.
The hydrocarbons sector is heavily underpinned by foreign nationals brought in by countries sitting on a wealth of gas and oil, and accounts for a significant proportion of expatriates living temporarily or on a more permanent basis in host countries. In theory at least, Turkmenistan, with its vast reserves of natural gas, should not be any different.
The saying goes that where there is muck, there is brass. In more ways than one oil and gas exploration is indeed a dirty business, but the risk/reward returns can be significant for both the hired help and the nation that by happenstance is sitting atop such a lucrative, if albeit finite revenue source. It is indeed on this basis that expats can expect their costs of living to be high, on the assumption that they have the ability to more than afford it.
Turkmenistan is vastly different player operating in the same field. Where other hydrocarbon-rich nations have embraced modernity and created Sovereign Wealth Funds(SWF) for when the taps finally run dry, autocratic ‘leader for life’ President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow has in effect turned the former Soviet republic into his personal playground, building edifices and statuary that deify his ability to spend the countries’ money as if it came from his own checking account.
The uninitiated would assume that Berdymukhamedow has gone on his tawdry spending spree only after ensuring that Turkmenistan’s residents are well catered for. This is emphatically not the case, with queues for basic foodstuffs and low withdrawal limits at cash machines commonplace. Where a country is run along the lines of a Kim Dynasty-lite cult of personality, everyday Turkmen are coerced into agricultural labour and can be severely punished for even the slightest perceived transgression. All the while, the president’s tacky, marble-obsessed Potemkin projects take shape all around those who are perhaps not even deemed worthy to look at them, let alone set foot within their almost always deserted confines.
The billions frittered away that will never generate any financial returns for the country not only account for where the president’s priorities lie, but why there is little left to provide the basics of life that any citizen should expect from its government, elected or otherwise. Shortages are about as unnecessary in Turkmenistan as they would be anywhere in the world, but the global community still seems to struggle with the fact that the country is lost in a maze of its own making, specifically at the hands of Berdymukhamedow and the slightly less culpable Saparmurat Niyazov, the former dentist’s predecessor and first president after secession from the USSR.
My take on why Ashgabat is so incredibly expensive for the expat community transcends the obvious go to explanations of scarcity and inflation, as well as ‘paying the price’ for gaining access to the country’s gas reserves. Simply, Berdymukhamedow is perhaps looking the wrong way around to recouping his lavish spending on how to make areas of Turkmenistan look as kitsch and garish as they are. Basic economics suggests that pushing prices up exempts a larger proportion of those with cash in their pockets from parting with it. It seems that most of his self-commissioned projects have been built without any purpose apart from one crucial, dictator-esque trait: because he can, drunk on self-delusion and an assumption that others will view him as he does himself.
Setting the bar high in terms of design and credibility will always attract those with money to buy into a lifestyle of their choosing, but pricing even this demographic out of the market suggests that what lies beneath is isn’t all it seems, which will in turn only push prices higher as less revenue than ever will be generated. Or, Berdymukhamedow simply revels in being at the top of this indice, as some form of acknowledgement of his existence from the outside world – a mindset usually reserved for the Narcissistic that are without anyone to rein in excesses.
As ever, it is the working men and women of Turkmenistan who will continue to suffer whilst the status quo remains. There is a terrible irony of subsistence living within a country that is even too expensive for wealthy foreigners, but for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also*. For someone who favours an isolationist position of neutrality, Berdymukhamedow seems awfully desperate to impress someone, but aside from the those willing to look the other way to his regime’s transgressions – strangely, most hydrocarbon-rich nations engender similar attitudes from outsiders… – his supporters are in short supply.
It is unknown what will happen when the Caspian’s gas reserves have been exhausted, but in the absence of a SWF and a benevolent regime in situ, escaping Turkmenistan remains the best, or least worst option for a population that has reportedly significantly shrunk below its 5.4-6.2 million best estimate of a Berdymukhamedow-commissioned census. It can only be envisaged that Ashgabat will become a completely deserted, Legend of Zelda-type city and a monument to unbridled excess and a lost civilization, which the Turkmen population within its homeland is in danger of becoming under such interminable, ruinous stewardship.