Tales from a hermit nation

News is seldom heard about the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan, which keeps a low profile and does not encourage visitors. But stories have now emerged that many of its citizens have emigrated as the economy founders, and the president went missing for a month. Nicholas Nugent investigates goings-on in this gas-rich but little-known desert state

In ancient times, what we now call Turkmenistan on the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea lay on the fabled Silk Road trading route between Europe and China. Its ruined city of Merv, near the border with Uzbekistan, was once the most populous city in the world before being destroyed by an invading Mongol army.

These days, the former Soviet Central Asian state is principally known as the owner of the world’s fourth largest reserves of natural gas, lying beneath the Karakum Desert which covers 80 per cent of the country. Its population inhabits the irrigated southern strip, where Turkmenistan borders Iran and Afghanistan, and the Caspian Sea shoreline.

Recently the Turkmen service of America’s RFE/RL broadcaster, Azatlyk, reported that a third of the populace had left the country for new pastures since 2008 – a poor reflection on the quality of life in a nation that boasts of being a welfare state. It is doubtless those without government jobs, or any jobs, who are fleeing. The news agency reported that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was so angry when told of the population decline that he ordered a recount; but this only confirmed that 1.88 million people had left over the decade to seek a better life elsewhere.

All Turkmen journalists are on the public payroll and the internet is heavily censored

Verifying these reports is difficult for various reasons: the government does not volunteer information, all Turkmen journalists are on the public payroll and the internet is heavily censored. However, observers believe claims of a 6 million-strong population are exaggerated. This seems to be supported by reports from Azatlyk last year that the cost of obtaining a black market exit visa had risen to $3,500 and the government had made it harder to obtain foreign currency in an effort to restrict emigration.

The lack of statistical information also makes it problematic to gauge the state of the Turkmen economy, which is based on vast reserves of natural gas and the traditional cotton crop. Emerging reports suggest revenues from these major exports have fallen and the government is having difficulty funding some of its prestige projects – which include a new road to the Uzbekistan border and a golf course in the desert – and paying salaries to the large number of public servants. (By some accounts, as many as 90 per cent of all workers are state employees.) Food shortages have also been reported.

As a land-locked nation – the Caspian Sea has no outlet to the oceans – Turkmenistan has difficulty delivering its gas to markets, though a 3,666-km pipeline to China, completed within the past decade, has made a big difference. Previously all gas exports were piped to Iran or Russia, both oil and gas exporters in their own right, under swap agreements. A fallout with Russia over the price it paid now appears to have been resolved and Turkmenistan is expecting to settle further swap agreements – under which Russia will use Turkmen gas and export more of its own production – to fill new pipelines supplying south-east and central Europe. It is reported that five billion barrels of Turkmen gas a day now flow to Russia, barely a twentieth of the previous level.

The volume of gas sales to China are unknown and construction of the TAPI pipeline to deliver gas via Afghanistan to India and Pakistan is awaiting a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban, who control much of that country. Turkmenistan has few choices over its export markets as most of its neighbours, which also include Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, have more vibrant economies and no shortage of the commodities Turkmenistan has for sale.

One piece of news that has emerged from this rather secretive state concerns its leader, President Berdymukhamedov. Amid a veil of secrecy, the rumour mill was active during the president’s month-long disappearance from early July. Normally presidential activities opened the nightly news bulletin, so his absence led to speculation that a coup d’état had ended his 11-year leadership, that the former dentist was seriously ill with kidney failure, or that he had died.

Turkmenistan has difficulty delivering its gas to markets

When Berdymukhamedov reappeared in bulletins on 4 August, he was shown engaged in his usual leisure activities – horse riding, rifle shooting, driving around the permanently burning desert crater (a reminder of a bungled early Soviet attempt to harness the region’s gas) and writing another book, this time about a Turkmen dog breed. (His 35 previous books have featured subjects ranging from tea and nature to national happiness.) Coverage resumed as if nothing untoward had happened.

Television reports of a subsequent economic summit at a Caspian Sea resort, to which Berdymukhamedov welcomed the Russian prime minister and other regional leaders, answered none of the unanswered political or economic questions.

Turkmenistan is an extraordinary country by any standards. The bizarre behaviour of its leader, often seen on TV disciplining cabinet ministers, who stand in fear of him, is eclipsed only by that of his predecessor, the country’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, who renamed days of the week and months of the year after members of his family, demonstrating that Turkmenistan does not follow international norms.

The devil's gateway, where Soviet engineers set the desert alight while trying to extract gas
The devil’s gateway, where Soviet engineers set the desert alight while trying to extract gas

Berdymukhamedov reversed that idiocy but carried on with a policy of replacing all old structures in the capital Ashgabad with new buildings with Italian white marble facades. Five and six star hotels remain empty because foreign visitors are discouraged, while Turkmen citizens who cannot afford to live in new ‘elite’ homes were forced to relocate to the edge of the desert. Those who can afford to do so are also able, and permitted, to import cars – provided they are white!

Pictures of President Berdymukhamedov are everywhere - now you see, him now you don’t!
Pictures of President Berdymukhamedov are everywhere – now you see, him now you don’t!

The president’s disappearance drew global attention to a country that prefers not to be noticed. CNN ran a report headlined: ‘A hermit nation ruled by an egomaniac: Is Turkmenistan on the brink of collapse?’  Another US TV show, Last Week, revealed that the Guinness Book of World Records promoted Turkmenistan in its list of specious achievement records such as ‘most fountain pools in a public place’, ‘largest cycling awareness lesson’ and ‘most people singing in a round’.

Somehow the Guinness Book forgot to include among its superlatives most secretive and least visited country in Asia, if not the world. Nor did it mention that the journalism organisation Reporters Without Borders, in its annual index of press freedom, has just named Turkmenistan the world’s worst suppressor of free speech, beating North Korea to bottom place.

Nicholas Nugent is a writer and broadcaster specialising in Asia and the former Soviet Union. He has visited Turkmenistan several times over the past decade

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