Turkmenistan: Going to the Arkadags

Turkmenistan: Going to the Arkadags
Arkadag the Magnificent. / Government handout.
By Akhal-Teke: A Eurasianet Bulletin April 5, 2023

One day in Turkmenistan’s near future, Arkadag will go to Arkadag. After reading the most recent issue of Arkadag and watching a few minutes of Arkadag, he will cycle down to the local soccer stadium, almost certainly also called Arkadag, to watch Arkadag thrashing some hapless rival. Fans will chant “Arkadag” for the entire duration of the match.

That honorific title bestowed on former president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has for more than a decade served as the cornerstone of an increasingly megalomaniacal cult of personality. But the country has seen nothing yet.

The rationale here is easy to fathom. By compelling mindless loyalty, not merely to the state, but specifically to the man who was earlier this year elevated to the bespoke position of “National Leader,” the authoritarian system believes that political stability will be ensured. (Berdimuhamedov’s dour son, Serdar, formally occupies the presidential office, although even the police state clearly struggles to inspire enthusiasm for his insipid presence).  

Regime propagandists appear to have concluded, however, that the cult has gone nowhere near far enough. 

And so, the Arkadag brand is now being affixed to a whole range of institutions. First, there is the entire new city being built just beyond the capital, Ashgabat, which is to carry the National Leader’s nickname. 

This is not without precedent. The cities of Washington and Lincoln, the capital of the US state of Nebraska, were after all named after presidents, although that happened after the men in question had died. Kazakhstan’s capital was in March 2019 renamed to Nur-Sultan in honour of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had a little earlier stepped down as president. Such was the unpopularity of the move that Nur-Sultan has since been turned back to Astana. And then, of course, there is the city of Turkmenbashi, in western Turkmenistan, which was named in honour of the country’s late first president, Saparmurat Niyazov. He is never spoken of these days.

If the propagandists are going into overdrive giving Arkadag the hard sell, it is probably because they worry how some might question its price tag. On March 29, Agence France-Presse news agency reported, citing an official in charge of the committee managing construction, that the first phase of building the city will cost $3.3bn. "The second phase will cost about $1.5bn, according to our estimates," the official, Deryageldi Orazov, was quoted as saying. That makes for a total equivalent to around one-tenth of Turkmenistan’s gross domestic product.  

On April 1, Berdimuhamedov paid a visit to his Ozymandian handiwork to inspect progress on construction. In a presentation to Berdimuhamedov, Arkadag mayor Shamukhammet Durdylyev, a brown-noser of epic proportions, revealed that the city is to have its own soccer team: Arkadag. Berdimuhamedov had ideas. The team’s kit “should correspond to its purpose,” he suggested helpfully. Also, the team’s logo should be placed in the correct position, he added, using a giant stick to indicate his preference on a mannequin dressed in the proposed uniform. Durdylyev and fellow quivering minions took furious notes.

The name is well chosen. It may well eventually be required that the soccer team Arkadag, a culturally specific term that could perhaps best be rendered as something like “champion of the people,” beat all its opponents. It is challenging to square such things with the government’s ambition to see Turkmenistan become a more competitive sporting nation on the international stage – Berdimuhamedov the younger on March 24 issued instructions that the sports committee use an “evidence-based preparation” model for the upcoming Olympic Games in Paris – but Arkadag is unlikely to be troubled by such details. 

On April 2, the government website announced that Arkadag the city is to get its own weekly newspaper, also called Arkadag. The purpose of this publication will be to “propagate knowledge “of the country’s grandiose achievements” and to familiarise the world with a “smart city” without parallels in the region. The first issue will come out in July.  

From September, Turkmen TV viewers will be able to tune into the Arkadag channel, which will air for 15 hours daily, “masterfully revealing and promoting the great deeds and achievements of the independent neutral state of Turkmenistan.” 

As noted above, Turkmenistan is ostensibly run by another man, Serdar Berdimuhamedov. His job is to do the tedious administrative work. On April 3, he approved a decree naming an editor for Arkadag (the newspaper), a head of Arkadag (the TV channel) and hokim for the district of Gorjav in Arkadag (the city). There was a wide-ranging reshuffle in the justice system to boot as dozens of judges and prosecutors were moved around between regions, or from local bodies to national ones, and vice versa.

On April 10-11, Berdimuhamedov the younger will perform an official visit to Tajikistan. No agenda has been announced for this trip, which will be preceded by the customary bilateral business forum that is expected to see around 100 Turkmen entrepreneurs travelling to Dushanbe. Two likely topics for conversation between Berdimuhamedov and his host, President Emomali Rahmon, will be natural gas and electricity.

Ashgabat is eager for work to start on the so-called Line D of the Central Asia-China gas pipeline, which is to be built, if it is ever built, through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The route would be an absolute godsend for Tajikistan on numerous counts: access to cheap gas, transit fees, construction project dividends. The unstated assumption, as ever, is that energy-hungry Beijing will pick up the cheque. 

Turkmenistan wants to be more than a supplier of gas, though. It is constantly adding electricity-generating capacity, partly so it can bolster its position as a power exporter. Tajikistan suffers from chronic electricity shortages in winter, so Turkmenistan offers the potential for relief there too. 

Elsewhere, Turkmenistan is trying to make itself indispensable to Russia. State-owned Russian Railways announced on March 31 that it has reached an agreement with peer companies in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan on sharp discounts for transporting goods southward, toward Iran, along what is known as the North-South transport corridor.  

Turkmenistan’s state railways company is giving 50% off goods headed to Ak-Yayla, in the west of the country, and a 40% discount on goods being reloaded at a freight yard in Serakhs, further east along the border with Iran. Russian Railways has said that figures from the first quarter of 2023 indicate a twofold year-on-year increase in the volume of cargo transportation along the North-South corridor. With the West giving Russia the cold shoulder, the North-South channel, which plugs into trade routes that include places like Persian Gulf nations and India, is seen as an important Plan B.

As goods travel south, minds are heading north. Russian government-run news agency TASS reported on March 30, citing an official in Moscow’s mission in Ashgabat, that more than 2,000 Turkmen young people applied for the 250 available state-funded slots on university courses in Russia in the academic year 2023-24. Rossotrudnichestvo, Russia’s rough analogue to USAID, is going to seek a raise in the quota to 500, the embassy official told TASS.

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

This article originally appeared on Eurasianet here.