Central Asia: Potemkin Village of Turkmenistan ½

At the beginning of November 2020, the Turkmen authoritarian president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow unveiled huge golden dog statue in the capital city of Ashgabat, adding another golden sculpture into the huge collection across the city. All of that, despite the country being on the verge of food shortage and ongoing global pandemic of COVID-19, in which the country is still yet to declare the first official case.

Presidency of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow

Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow has been an official president of Turkmenistan since 2007, following the death of Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006. His presidency is characterised as authoritarian, creating a cult of his persona and with the country being held isolated from the outside world. His public persona is portrayed in the narrative of a nice guy who loves horses and dogs, liked being filmed during various situations of daily life, generally as president from people loved by his nation (Christie, 2019).

The reality is, as often seen in countries with an authoritarian leader, different. In a yearly report of Human Rights Watch, Turkmenistan is defined as an isolated and repressive country under the authoritarian rule (HRW, 2020). The World Press Freedom Index listed Turkmenistan on the 179th place in 2020, calling it Ever-expanding news “black hole”. Both, the media and the internet are censored and controlled by the state, with almost no possibility of providing private objective or alternative information (RSF, 2020). Index of economic freedom lists Turkmenistan on the 170th place in 2020, with one of the most repressed economies by state in the world (Heritage, 2020). According to sources of RFERL, almost 2 million people have justify the country since 2008, what makes an inner state crisis and the future of state even worse. This information has yet to be confirmed, but given the measure taken against the mass leaving of citizens in the latest years, there is a possibility of some information being true (Najibullah, 2019).

City of white marble and golden statues

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow unveiled huge golden dog statue, featuring his favourite dog breed of the Alabay dog, home-bred Turkmen variety of the native Central Asian shepherd dog. The President even wrote a book to his favourite breed, so the new statue is nothing surprising. The breed is also listed as a country’s national heritage. The statue is located in the area for civil servants, featuring an LCD screen with footage of breed in various daily routines or situations. According to local media, it reflects the breed’s “pride and self-confidence“ (BBC, 2020).

This is not the first case of president’s selfish desire being materialised in a form of a statue. In 2015, there was unveiled the massive golden statue of himself riding a horse. The statue portrayed his favourite horse Akkan (White Khan), and him carrying a dove with his right hand. The statue is called “The Protector”, the unofficial title of the president he has given himself. This act was a continuation in the process of building a cult of president’s personality, following the steps of previous authoritarian leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, whom he succeeded (The national news, 2015).

Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan is labelled as the marble city, being listed in Guinness World Records since 2013, because of the highest density of the building made of white marble. As of 2013 listed record, the capital city boasted 543 new buildings clad with 4,513,584 m² of white marble (GWR, 2013).

The city is full of monuments, statues, marble buildings, but it obviously had its costs. In various articles referring to the city, we can find description as “dead city or “ghost city”, because of the empty streets contrasting the greatness displayed in monuments and other installations in the city, even though the population of the city is about 850 000 citizens out of 6 million in total (Population stat, 2020). Ashgabat is ranked the second most expensive city to live in the world after Hong Kong, but the reasons are different as in the case of Hong Kong. The reasons, in this case, are connected to the economical and societal crisis, hyperinflation and costs of import of various goods (Williams, 2020).

COVID-19 pandemic

Back in March and April 2020, the western media adopted news of Turkmenistan banishing the word “coronavirus” from the country’s vocabulary. Actually, it was misinterpreted information, posted by Reporters without borders (RSF), where the truth was less interesting. The leadership of the country just denied the existence of the virus in Turkmenistan at all, still following this policy at the end of the November 2020 (Putz, 2020).

RFERL reported on 11th November, that country tightened the measures against the spread of the virus with mandatory mask-wearing, carrying out the raids consisting of local authorities, police officers and sanitary officers on companies, organizations, schools and also imposing of fines on people who break the given rules. Those caught without mask outdoor pays 20 manats ($5,7), indoor fine is 50 manats ($14,3). The government also banned trips across the country without extenuating reasons at the beginning of November 2020, until the 1st January 2021. Those extenuating reasons are work and business issues, death of relatives or medical treatment (RFERL, 2020).

In March 2020, the government closed the borders of the country and restricted travelling in and out of the Turkmenistan. The geographical position may help with the prevention of the spread, but with the leadership still denying the first official case, it’s impossible to make a deduction how was the situation handled (Yaylymova, 2020).

According to information of RFERL, the locals prefer to stay at home with health issues instead of visiting the hospitals in fear of catching the virus. The hospitals in the country, except for the capital city, experience lack of modern equipment or adequate medical supply. People who died of lung problems in Turkmenistan are being delivered to the family in plastic bags, with the number of fresh graves growing across the country. Unfortunately, there is a lack of any prediction or analysis concerning the number of cases and deaths related to the COVID-19 in Turkmenistan (RFERL, 2020).

During the summer 2020, the WHO conducted a 10-day long visit of the country, ending with a press conference, where the mission’s head, Catherine Smallwood urged the local authorities to act as if the virus was circulating. On the other hand, the positive attitude was expressed towards the measures taken by the authorities against the possible spread of the virus. The second visit was supposed to be in August, but there has not been any WHO mission so far since July’s one (Putz, 2020).

The Potemkin village of Turkmenistan is pretty obvious from how the country is in crisis, under the authoritarian rule of one man with the cult of his persona, with authorities still denying the cases of COVID-19, but with a golden statue of national dog breed in the half-empty capital. Problem of Turkmenistan lies in the absolute absence of any political opposition, where there is no hope for any change either through the elections or some protest movement so far. Altogether with the constitution being tightened and upgraded in favour of the president or food shortage, the question of how long this will last is coming to the light, but there doesn’t seem to be any positive answer to it yet.

Author: Richard Straka


Photo Source: Reuters in India Daily (2020). Turkmenistan President unveils gold dog statue. Not the only thing bizarre about his country. (https://www.indiatoday.in/trending-news/story/turkmenistan-president-unveils-gold-dog-statue-not-the-only-thing-bizarre-about-his-country-1740824-2020-11-13?fbclid=IwAR3T3K-z4bgOutG2Libn6F0bibNwQIAwisCJWfsuNRSLV_PsF7kzxtCEp3c)

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