A Central Asian Dictatorship

Parliamentary elections will take place in Turkmenistan on  28th March and the outcome is already a foregone conclusion. The Democratic Party will win. Although the constitution allows for multiple political parties, there is no effective opposition to the party of the president in this former Soviet republic. Since President Saparmurat Niyazov died of a heart attack in December 2006, his successor and former dentist, Korbanguly Bardymukhamhedov, has begun to dismantle signs of his predecessor’s personality cult, only to replace it with his own. Niyazov called himself Turkmenbasy or ‘Father of the Turkmen’. Bardymukhamhedov calls himself Arkadag or ‘Protector of the Turkmen’, a title which is certainly easier to pronounce than his name! 

Massive photos of the president hang on the outside and inside of every building in Ashgabad, the capital. The Independence Arch, which featured a pure gold statue of Turkmenbasy that swivelled to face the sun and was jokingly nicknamed the ‘Turkmen Grill’, was dismantled from its prominent position in central Ashgabad and moved to the suburbs. In its place, Bardymukhamhedov has erected a 50ft high golden statue of his favourite dog breed, the Alabi. The national museum has an entire floor dedicated to photos showing how the president is a great cook, author, horse-rider, rock guitarist and many other things besides.

Ashgabad, the capital of Turkmenistan, is a show city, rather like its closest similar cousins in Dubai or the Emirates. Gleaming white marble palaces, topped with golden domes, have sprung up in vast numbers. They line wide boulevards and have large gaps between each building, giving a feeling of spaciousness. All have conformed to a similar pattern of design, apparently masterminded by a French architect, with Greco-Roman pillars, massive statues and fountains everywhere. The overall effect is like walking into ancient Rome at the time of Emperor Hadrian, with all its sumptuous pomp and importance!

It is only gradually that the first-time visitor to this Central Asian capital realises that there are very few people about. The wide streets are empty, save for an army of women street sweepers. There is at least one of these positioned every 100 yards, sweeping purposefully at the dust or puddles with birch brooms. A male supervisor every 200 yards keeps an eye on them. But the street sweepers and the ubiquitous Ministry for National Security or MNB (Türkmenistanyň Milli howpsuzlyk ministrilgi) secret police, and occasional military personnel, appear to be the only living things in this new marble paradise. Ordinary Turkmens are kept at bay by the police. Endless roadblocks ensure that mere citizens cannot penetrate the marble show-city, where most of the multi-million-dollar buildings lie locked and empty, simply there to impress visiting dignitaries, like a Hollywood movie-set.

There is a sort of informal curfew at 11pm every evening. Although not promulgated by any law, citizens out on the streets after this hour are likely to be detained by the police or the MNB, and asked why they are not sitting at home watching one or other of the wholly government-controlled TV channels which show endless news reports of the President and his important goings-on!

Turkmenistan earns an estimated £7 billion a year from Russia’s Gazprom for the sale of gas, so the President has got loads of cash to spend on his pet projects such as the new marble city of Ashgabad. But in this quasi-Communist dictatorship, where everything is centrally controlled by the President himself, even electricity, gas and water is free. Apartments are allocated on a rent-free basis. The first 25 litres of petrol a citizen uses every month is free and after that it is charged at only 15p per litre.

Tourists and visitors are mercilessly ripped off. Tariff charts for entry to the national museum, for example, show that locals pay 7p while tourists have to pay £7! Government owned restaurants have 20-page menus of low-quality food, badly cooked and served by sullen staff, but at prices that would make Michel Roux choke on his foie gras! English translations are available in some, but these tend to provide the only entertainment of the evening, describing tender veal for example as ‘Sentimental Calf!’ A single glass of low-grade Moldavian wine can cost over £36! Only one or two privileged people have been given licences to run their own restaurants out of government-owned properties. They are closely watched by the MNB secret police.

All hotel rooms are bugged. The only 5-star hotel in Ashgabad – The President Hotel, despite promising free wifi in every room – has blocked computer access, forcing guests to use the business lounge, where two computers are available. Only one of these has internet access, ensuring that all outgoing and incoming email traffic can be monitored. The President Hotel allocates its rooms on a language basis, so that English-speakers are always put on the 10thfloor, to make bugging and monitoring easier! All mobile phonecalls in Turkmenistan are monitored. 

The people are oppressed to a degree unseen outside North Korea. All women and even young girls have to wear long skirts by law, to avoid showing their legs and causing offence. A relentless crackdown on the state-owned media ensures that nothing critical or even faintly disturbing can be reported. There is little or no crime, because of the ubiquitous presence of the MNB, military and police, but any crime, or even any motor accident will never be reported by the media, who are fed an endless diet of how wonderful Turkmenistan is and how lucky its 5 million inhabitants are to live there.

Despite the lavish marble city and multi-coloured fountains and statues that decorate every corner and roundabout, the city lacks soul. The only part of Ashgabad that has a feeling of reality about it is the old Soviet district which buzzes with life, people, cars and activity. It is here the majority of the population lives, mostly in abject poverty. Here, amongst the run-down and decrepit former Soviet housing blocks, you can find elderly women cooking on coals outside their front doors and drawing water from a single street-side tap. The Assembly elections next Sunday are unlikely to improve their lives.