President Berdimuhamedov counts 89 golds as Turkmenistan closes its $10bn Asian Games 'vanity project'

President Berdimuhamedov counts 89 golds as Turkmenistan closes its $10bn Asian Games 'vanity project'
An image of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, on display outside the national horse-racing ground in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. The capital also boasts a giant golden statue of Berdimuhamedow riding a horse atop a white marble cliff.
By Kanat Shaku in Almaty September 29, 2017

To those who saw the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG) as a $10bn vanity project of Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, it may have come as little surprise to see the country on September 27 close the games after finishing in first place with 245 medals (89 gold, 70 silver and 86 bronze).

Turkmenistan has never previously won international sporting medals, thus its topping of the performances of the other 31 countries - including China, Japan, Iran and South Korea - goes down as a sensational outcome.

The bizarrely over-priced 10-day AIMAG in the capital Ashgabat, which included the commissioning of a giant $2.5bn falcon-shaped airport, was used by Turkmenistan to spruce up its image and promote itself as a regional sports hub, but RFE/RL described it as an expensive way to “make [Berdimuhamedov] feel better” about his nation.

The country’s tourism ministry had said the Turkmen expected "around 150,000 spectators from around the world" to attend the games - not nearly sufficient to offset the costs, given as ranging from $7.5bn-$10bn. AIMAG saw 5,500 athletes from 32 countries contesting 21 disciplines.

In the lead-up to the event, human rights campaigners complained of residents being “forcibly evicted” from parts of the capital Ashgabat to make way for the needs of the spectacle. Campaigners said they were ordered to leave their homes “without adequate compensation” – according to accounts submitted to the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) in Vienna and New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) – and that did not exactly paint a welcoming picture of Turkmenistan, a tightly controlled Central Asian country often compared to North Korea for its remoteness and autocratic tendencies.

The rights groups said the authorities "systematically demolished extensions and additions homeowners have made to their properties, without allowing them to appeal the demolition decisions to a court”. By pulling down homes the Turkmen government aimed to turn Ashgabat into a "white marble city" ahead of the competition. TIHR and HRW urged the Turkmen government to provide proper compensation for the evictions and demolitions.

"The games will last all of 10 days, but people left with inadequate or no housing will suffer for years to come unless they are properly compensated," TIHR's executive director, Farid Tuhbatillin, said.

Turkmen authorities banned sales of alcohol in Ashgabat for the duration of the event, although the ban apparently only applied to Turkmen citizens. Military and law enforcement agencies stood on high alert for the September 17-27 period.

Ahead of the event, authorities also banned former inmates from attending the games' venues and tried to clear the city of child beggars as well as stray dogs and cats.

Price comparable to that of pipeline
The event's price tag is comparable to the $10bn cost of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project, which Turkmenistan is insisting on trying to bring to life, having launched construction works in 2015.

TAPI is expected to export 33bn cubic metres (cm) of natural gas per year from Turkmenistan’s Galkynysh field, one of the world's largest fields with estimated reserves of 13,100bn cm of natural gas, to Pakistan and India via Afghanistan. The country recently announced its plans to start TAPI gas exports by 2020.

The spectacle was paid for even though Turkmenistan is struggling economically, having been hit by low world oil prices, a slump that has made prospects for the pipeline murky, given that Turkmenistan is committed to alone funding 80% of TAPI’s construction cost.