"...if it's not the end of the world, it's only a short bus ride away"

Turkmenistan is one of the most mysterious, impenetrable and troubling nations in the post-Soviet space, arguably the least successful of the former Soviet satrapies This country, whose towns and oases offered key stops on the Silk Road, has a coastline on the eastern shores of the Caspian. It is basically 150,000 sq miles of the Kara-Kum desert ringed by a belt of 38,000 sq miles of agricultural land and then mountains perched on the map above Iran to its south; northern Afghanistan to its east, beneath Uzbekistan in the north, and is home to (allegedly) 5.7 million people, perhaps less. This is the hard land from which Alp Arslan’s Seljuk Turks swept into Anatolia in the 11th C and defeated Byzantium at the pivotal battle of Manzikert, thus eventually bringing Turks permanently into SE Europe, if now only a 'toe-hold'.

Today’s citizens are wholeheartedly encouraged to offer complete devotion to their leader(97.7% vote in the last election), President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who has created a personality cult, rivalled only perhaps by that of his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who called himself Turkmenbashi, or ‘Father of All Turkmen’ -which caused great amusement in Turkey, proper. Since coming to power in 2007 in dubious circumstances,, Berdymukhammedov (known by the name Arkadag, ‘the protector’) has retained the hallmarks of the Niyazov regime: isolationism, and despotism, a resoundingly ‘not free’ political system. The elite largely has the country’s gas reserves (the fourth largest in the world) and its forced-labour cotton industry to thank for their intensely concentrated wealth, such as it is

Since this reclusive nation typically does little to attract foreign scrutiny- (they rank 151st of 154 nations, in World Audit’s current Democracy tables), it has been interesting to see it change in preparing to host the international Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG), in the interesting capital city of Ashgabat. This is said to be the second biggest sporting event in Asia. The fact of hosting the games has shone a light on President Berdymukhammedov’s ambitions for his nation, inevitably along with the government’s woeful lack of consideration for human rights in the state. Although the country does not normally encourage visits from outside (there is no Press Freedom) the opening ceremony, which took place on September 17, attracted a number of heads of states, including the presidents of Afghanistan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, amongst whom, no doubt, deals were done

Official statistics say that 5,500 athletes from 62 different countries took part in the games. The financial cost of hosting the event has been considerable – in the billions. A particularly eye-catching investment is the new $2.5 billion airport built in the shape of a falcon in flight. The Olympic Complex alone cost $5 billion dollars. An official press release says that the opening ceremony, which involved 75,000 costume pieces, dozens of camels, acrobats and fireworks, offered a story that “presented Turkmenistan’s history, its dreams and expectations and the visionary plan of becoming a world-known country!” It was certainly a prestige project and an interesting indication that the state may be looking to promote itself to the outside world. As with some of the other FSU states it wears its Islamic religion lightly.

Meanwhile of course, as is often the case with Olympic preparations, attempts to clean-up the capital city in order to impress foreign delegations, have also involved cleansing the local population in a way that shows an alarming disregard for the rights of citizens. Attempts to improve the image of the city include banning the sale of alcohol, and reducing the freedom of movement of people from the regions, to access the capital. Those from the regions who have worked hard on the construction of the facilities are quartered and maintained away from the city centre. Street children, who are normally prominent in the capital, have been swept away by police patrols, sent home with warnings to their (often impoverished) parents. The issue of housing demolition has also revealed, in critical fashion, the cruelty with which the regime treats its citizens. There are widespread accusations of homeowners in Ashgabat being forcibly evicted and seeing their homes destroyed with inadequate compensation. The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) in Vienna and the New York-based Human Rights Watch released a statement in September alerting the international community to the fact that the authorities "systematically demolished extensions and additions homeowners have made to their properties, without allowing them to appeal the demolition decisions to a court," in order to "standardize” the city’s appearance. As many as 13,000 homes were destroyed in one suburb of the capital in September.

The treatment of the capital’s stray dog and cat population has also typified the regime’s hypocrisy. Whilst for years, stray animals have been exterminated by police squads who patrol the city, the government has suddenly taken an interest in a privately-run, volunteer-based animal shelter called ‘Island of Hope’. The government has not only registered the charity but also promised the shelter a plot of land and supplies. This unusual clemency is, most observers note, doubtless motivated by the games.

Preparations for the sporting event have also drawn attention to restrictions on the media. These media are strictly controlled by the state (the nation ranks 151st/154 for Press Freedom and it is consequently difficult to find any reporting that is not entirely biased. Despite a factitious 2013 law which banned censorship, it is well known that the government of Turkmenistan has a monopoly over the media and controls all output. Crucially, they also control internet access. It is extremely expensive, so apparently only 8% of the population have access to the web and news from the outside world. Attempts by local journalists to expose anything that depicts the government in less-than-a flattering light are harassed, at the least. In the run up to the games, a correspondent for RFE/RL, Soltan Achilova, was threatened with death by a man who claimed to be a police officer. This came one week after a man attempted to steal her phone when she was taking a photo. She faced similar acts of intimidation whilst she was on her way to document Turkmenistan's Day of Bicycles on July 29. A man she met warned her against taking photos, or she would be "finished." Achilova faced a spate of incidents of harassments in November of last year.

RFE/RL has also recently exposed the government’s control on news - reporting that a deadly mudslide in the city of Dowgala, which sources on the ground said claimed the lives of 25 people, has been obfuscated by officials who focused instead on plans for the opening ceremony. Unfortunately the country is subject to serious mudslides, from time to time. The previous president as a child was orphaned through a mudslide and was thereafter raised in an orphanage, all of this in the long Soviet era. 

Needless to say political pluralism is entirely unthinkable. Power is entirely centralized in the figure of the President, who removes officials as and when he pleases. It was recently reported that Akmurat Rejepov, who long held the position of President Saparmurat Niyazov's security chief, has died in prison, after ten years. The fact that it was he that was instrumental in bringing President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to power, after Niyazov's death, itself in mysterious circumstances, and was arrested 6 months later, is a good example of how things work here and how the president treats his political rivals /enemies. Rejepov was one of 88 people currently listed by ‘Prove They Are Alive’, which is a campaign urging Turkmenistan to offer information about prisoners who rights activists claim have been arrested on political charges, (largely following the alleged coup attempt against the then President Niyazov in November 2002) and imprisoned in undisclosed facilities, unable to communicate with the outside world. The ‘Prove They Are Alive’ campaign is supported by the civic solidarity platform which is an OSCE-wide coalition of 54 NGOs who are soliciting the government to provide information about the missing.

Former foreign ministers Boris Shikhmuradov and Batyr Berdyev are also among these victims - their families do not know if they are alive in prison or have died. Additionally, prison conditions are truly grim. In September 2015 a report drawn up by a group of NGOS revealed physical and psychological abuse at Ovadan Depe prison, where torture is apparently standard practice, for political opponents and suspects.

Turkmenistan also seems to be awakening to the threat of terrorism. Every one of the Afghan regions bordering Turkmenistan is in open conflict, hence fears of instability are justified; there is fighting on its doorstep. For years the Taleban had secret rest-camps in Turkmenistan’s vast desert to enable them to give R&R to their fighters from across the borders in Aghhanistan. In June this year apparently, four IS militants crossed into Turkmenistan from Afghanistan's Herat Province. The same month, media sources heard from law enforcement, that a country (which was not named but is likely to be Turkey) had handed back to the Turkmen authorities four Turkmen nationals suspected of having links to IS. At the start of July, President Berdymukhammedov gave a speech to members of the security council in which he announced that, "It is the duty of every military serviceman to guard the legal government structure and carry on an unrelenting battle with any violators of the law.” New laws have been introduced which require any foreign workers to provide the authorities with a panoply of documents relating to their contract, habitation and their financial situation.

Turkmenistan is, analysts argue, an unlikely place for a terrorist atrocity as it would gain so little publicity. However, the pretext of terrorist threats could be used for tightening controls over the organs of the state and intensifying the surveillance of its own citizens, although it should be said that there can be little room for further tightening the already draconian controls.

In the many scenarios analysts hypothesize, to bring about the collapse of an authoritarian regime (foreign intervention, coup from insiders, mass popular unrest), if one such scenario is more likely in the case of Turkmenistan, it might be the latter, as a result, more than anything, of economic hardship. At work in Turkmenistan is a social contract by which the citizens are entirely impoverished of rights but they are provided with certain benefits from the state (they receive free electricity, water, gas, salt). Up until this point the Turkmen economy has been buoyed by their gas exports. However, the lack of transparency in terms of the data it releases, cannot hide the fact of the decline in global energy prices. Since Turkmenistan’s economy is built around energy exports, (it constitutes more than half of their revenues) it will have been hit hard. Apparently gas production has decreased for the first time in seven years. Its exports to China have apparently collapsed completely, as a result of the decline in energy prices. Trade worth $9 billion five years before has dropped to $5 billion this year. Additionally, Ashgabat has had a well-publicized spat with Iran over exports. Ashgabat has been exporting gas to Tehran since 1997, and after China and Turkey, Iran is Turkmenistan’s third largest trading partner. In December of last year Tehran reported that Turkmenistan had threatened to stop gas exports due to payment arrears of $1.8 billion. This alone indicates that Ashgabat is in need of the funds. The depression is evident in daily life - in wage arrears, in the fact that bazaars are apparently empty, people are visiting doctors less and are tightening their belts. There is speculation that the next step for the government, will be a devaluation of the currency. The result of this would of course be increased inflation and therefore greater hardship for the citizens, whose yearly salary is apparently around $4,000 (if they are indeed employed – apparently 60% of the country is out of work).  If devaluation were to take place, it is most likely this would happen after the games have been completed. The economic decline does have potential political implications: the only manifestation of mass unrest in Turkmenistan had been produced by hardship. There have been protests over wage arrears and food riots several years ago. An interesting element to note in the recent recession is the unconfirmed fact that, according to unnamed sources, the government has instructed the regional authorities to pay their own budgets, find their own money and pay state organizations themselves, rather than looking to central government funding. This could undermine the political structure, if the authorities across the regions start to feel that they are no longer benefiting from the status quo, discontent could rumble across the echelons of the elite as well.

Some of the solutions to Turkmenistan’s economic problems are within the realm of possibility: avoiding large, costly, ‘show-stopper’ projects like the enormous TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline and instead focusing its energy on smaller pipeline projects that actually bring in cash. The less probable, but ultimately more sustainable reform would be to try to open the country to foreign investment to develop onshore fields, rather than only engaging with a small set of partners, with whom it frequently spars.

This would of course be a drastic reform involving the continuing presence of foreigners and entirely incompatible with the regime’s secrecy principles, as it stands. Having said this, perhaps the arrival of the games in Ashgabat is hinting towards a new spirit of openness. Their preparedness even to hold these Games speaks of an ambition for wider recognition, even approval from its peers. And then there is the reality that if the regime is going to refill its coffers with the vast expenditure it has used on these games, it may well have to open its doors to new economic possibilities. 

Sara Bielecki