Turkmenistan: A shore bet

Turkmenistan: A shore bet
Built to last? / Polimeks
By Akhal-Teke: A Eurasianet Bulletin February 17, 2023

Turkmenistan was no exception in reaching out a helping hand to Turkey following a cataclysmic earthquake that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

State television reported on February 10 that President Serdar Berdimuhamedov had signed a decree to provide assistance to children in particular. 

But even in these desperate moments, the regime in Ashgabat could not hit pause on the self-promoting megalomania. So it is that the aid will be given at the behest of a shadily funded charitable foundation named after the former president, Berdimuhamedov’s father, Gurbanguly, who now styles himself the “National Leader.”

A planeload of humanitarian aid, consisting of medical specialists, drugs and unspecified fabric products, was sent by the government in Turkmenistan on February 7, one day after the earthquake. 

Turkey is also home to a large community of Turkmen nationals, so there is bound to be concern that some of them have been caught up in the cataclysm. There have been numerous reports of people from neighbouring Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan either having been killed or being pulled from the rubble following the quake. 

But as Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news has reported, it is a little more complicated for Turkmens. In addition to the communication problems caused by the disaster itself, people in Turkmenistan must also contend with the government’s suffocating internet censorship, which makes keeping in touch with friends and relatives a challenge. Rather than loosen their grip for the duration of this crisis, by allowing use of some banned instant messaging apps, for example, the authorities are only intensifying their controls, Turkmen.news reported.  

Turkmen state news media does not as a rule report on the fact of accidental deaths of its own citizens caused by car crashes, industrial disasters, natural calamities and the like. So it was particularly eye-catching that Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who has served as the public face of Turkmenistan’s condolence-paying, on February 8 admitted that some Turkmen citizens had died in Turkey. Turkmen.news has reported that the remains of at least four people have been returned home. 

President Berdimuhamedov (the younger) devoted relatively little time to the ongoing situation in Turkey at the February 10 Cabinet meeting, much of which was given over to the traditional unveiling of bogus economic performance figures. Thus it was that the public learned that the country’s gross domestic product had expanded by 6.2% in 2022. The plan is to grow the economy by 6.5% in 2023, partly through the creation of 3,000 new jobs in “modern enterprises.”

In Turkmenistan, these figures are abstract and impossible to verify to the point of meaninglessness. Perhaps one slight surprise is that government statisticians chose to claim that the construction sector had grown by only 0.3% – a modest figure given that a whole new city, Arkadag, has appeared in the space of the last year. Breakneck-speed construction has regularly been cited as one of the cornerstones of economic growth in Turkmenistan, but it is quite possible this theme may be downplayed in future in light of the human toll that the culture of hasty, slapdash building appears to have taken in Turkey.  

President Berdimuhamedov may have been heading off criticism when he seized upon the opportunity of the Cabinet meeting to fire Charymyrat Purchekov, the deputy prime minister with the portfolio for construction, along with the power sector and industry. Then again, by slotting Industry and Construction Minister Baymyrat Annamammedov into that freshly vacated seat, Berdimuhamedov was hardly signalling any change in course. 

In other personnel changes, Mukhammetgeldy Serdarov has been replaced as Finance and Economy Minister by Serdar Jorayev, and Shakhym Abdrakhmanov was dismissed as the deputy prime minister with the portfolio for oil and gas sector affairs and replaced by former presidential advisor Ashirguly Begliyev. 

Now that Berdimuhamedov the elder has reverted formally to a co-presidential status – by virtue of his newly minted National Leader title – he travels abroad as his nation’s de facto leading representative.  

On February 11, he flew to the United Arab Emirates for an official visit of unclear purpose. The trip had the feel of a sight-seeing tour. He stopped off at the monumental Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi and seems to have spent an inordinate amount of time there, admiring the size of the building and the giant carpets and chandeliers within. 

In the afternoon, Berdimuhamedov the elder met with the Emirati president, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, for what, as reported by Turkmen state media, sounded like quite a vague chat about cooperation in the energy, transport, communications, industrial, agriculture, shipbuilding, high-tech and finance sectors. Allusions to how Emirati “financial structures” – banks and development funds, in other words – might help in the “implementation of important projects” was possibly an appeal for money toward building the TAPI trans-Afghan natural gas pipeline project. 

It is difficult to detect what level of enthusiasm moneybags in the Middle East have for this adventure. Following the conclusion of Berdimuhamedov’s trip, the governments of Turkmenistan and the UAE released a joint statement on a memorandum of understanding on major UAE energy companies getting involved in the second stage of Turkmenistan’s giant Galkynysh field, where Chinese companies are currently doing all the running. The logic here being, although this is not spelled out, that if the Emiratis are to be induced into spending their money on a fraught pipeline project, they should also expect to get some share of the dividends from the sale of the gas itself. 

On the second day of his stay in Abu Dhabi, Berdimuhamedov descended from his room in the swanky Emirates Palace hotel for a stroll and a bike ride around one of the nearby yacht marinas, which he eyed with barely disguised covetousness. His dream is for Turkmenistan’s own Awaza resort on the Caspian Sea to become a mini-Abu Dhabi or mini-Dubai. Berdimuhamedov even met with some camel experts to sound out the idea of making his own country a destination for tourists wishing to travel on the “ship of the desert.” It barely needs to be pointed out that the only impediment to Berdimuhamedov’s fantasisng is that while Emirati cities make a virtue of their openness to all-comers, Turkmenistan is almost impossible to get into.

Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.

This article originally appeared on Eurasianet here.