Turkmenistan appears poised to build the one white elephant it's overlooked during a 15-year building spree—a subway system under the streets of its deserted capital city.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov mooted the idea during a meeting with Ukrainian construction magnate Vladimir Petruk in Ashgabat this week. During the meeting, Berdymukhamedov reportedly asked Petruk to study the issue. "Due to the rapid growth of the capital city and increase in its population, the esteemed president drew attention to the need to build a metro," state television announced on February 4.
I can't help but take a bit of credit for the concept, which I used to suggest in jest to anyone who would listen when I lived in Ashgabat. In jest, because Ashgabat's low population, sprawl, earthquakes, and lack of traffic make a subway an imprudent investment.
Petruk apparently raised the idea back in 2005 with Berdymukhamedov's predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov. The plans went nowhere that time, perhaps for good reason.
Estimates of Ashgabat's population generally hover between 700,000 and one million. During the Soviet era, one million was the minimum number required for Moscow’s planners to consider building a metro in a city.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s personality cult has so saturated Turkmenistan that people seem to be fed up with purchasing dictator memorabilia. Sluggish demand for calendars featuring portraits of the president (month after month) is reportedly forcing traders to raise their prices in a bid to minimize losses.
The Chronicles of Turkmenistan reports that this year’s version of the calendar featuring Berdymukhamedov striking a pose on each page have not been selling well. The Chronicles suggests the rising price is further damping demand: For one version of the calendars, the price has risen by 25 percent year-on-year, from 45 manats (approximately $16) to 56 manats ($20).
"They are bought only by bureaucrats and businessmen who keep them in their offices to show their loyalty to the president," the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a website run by exiles in Vienna, explained.
Despite losses, the state-run publisher is still printing desk and wall calendars – along with other mementos including giant posters and icon-like charms for car dashboards – because "propaganda is more important than profit in Turkmenistan.”
Turkmenistan’s copious reserves of natural gas have long afforded residents an unusual luxury: free gas for cooking and heating their homes. But the subsidy encourages waste, which is encapsulated in an anecdote wherein a Turkmen family never bothers turning the gas stove off because it has to pay for matches.
Unsurprisingly, the waste is expensive, perhaps costing the nation of 5 million up to $5 billion a year. So Turkmenistan’s strongman president says homes should be fit with gas meters and consumers will have to start paying.
Speaking at a government meeting on January 17, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov called on local journalists to run a series of television programs and publications on conserving gas, Turkmen state television reported.
"The installation of the meters will allow people to economically consume natural gas, while the maximum payment for using the gas will not create difficulties for the population, for each family," the Associated Press quoted Berdymukhamedov as saying. From AP:
The move comes in the wake of signs that Berdymukhamedov's authoritarian government sees the subsidized domestic energy market as too heavy an economic burden, and is making profitable energy exports a bigger priority. […]
The government has made it clear in recent months the domestic subsidies are too costly. At a conference in October attended by Berdymukhamedov, one delegate publicly announced that free gas to the country's citizens cost Turkmenistan $5 million each year.
Neither Berdymukhamedov nor his government offered any clarification about when the changes would take effect or how much consumers would be charged.
Words are unlikely to do this dizzying video justice. Turkmenistan’s dictator Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who has previously sung for state television, and performed a guitar solo to the delight of his subjects, has added a synthesizer to his musical repertoire.
The video appeared on the state-run Turkmen Owazy television channel’s YouTube page on January 1, but appears to be from last New Year’s.
This being neo-totalitarian Turkmenistan, of course the audience was packed with adoring fans and the stage was adorned with a portrait of Berdymukhamedov.
Authoritarian Turkmenistan has announced results of the country's December 15 parliamentary elections, which offered a total lack of opposition to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s stronghold on power.
According to results released late December 18 by Turkmenistan's Central Electoral Commission, the pro-presidential Democratic Party won 47 of 125 seats up for grabs in the rubber-stamp parliament. The new Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, which was founded on the president’s orders last year, won 14. Trade unions won 33 and women's groups 16, the state-run TDH news agency reported.
This was billed as Turkmenistan's first “multi-party” election, since Ashgabat allowed a second political party to field candidates. But the vote did not offer a genuine choice because all contenders were carefully vetted to ensure loyalty to Berdymukhamedov, who tolerates no dissent and rules with absolute authority over the gas-rich nation of 5 million.
Some may wonder why bother holding an election under such restrictions, but the carefully stage-managed performance offers a veneer of legitimacy to what is arguably one of the world’s few remaining totalitarian states.
Turkmenistan’s chief health fanatic led by example on this year’s state-wide Day of Health, state television footage shows, dispelling opposition reports the omnipotent president is suffering health problems.
State-run television showed Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov riding a horse, cycling, playing volleyball and pumping iron on the November 2 holiday, Russia’s Mir TV reported.
Not content building only his own personality cult, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is ensuring his father becomes a subject of adoration in Turkmenistan as well.
The state-run TDH news agency reported on October 21 that Berdymukhamedov has released a novel about his 81-year-old father’s boyhood entitled, "The Bird of Happiness."
The speaker of the Turkmen parliament, members of government, and MPs attended the launch, which was held in Dashoguz.
Berdymukhamedov, a trained dentist, has already published books on medicinal plants, carpet weaving, horses, history and ethnography.
The novel narrates 18 months of Myalikguly Berdymukhamedov's childhood during the lean years of World War Two. During the war, nine-year-old Myalikguly assumed responsibility for his family when his father Berdymukhamed Annayev was drafted.
For the president, the story of his father’s life was “a school of courage and maturity,” TDH said, in what appears to be the first review of the book.
"Events the Turkmen president's father lived through during those years of hardship and his enormous achievements and selflessness are examples of great heroism. Tales of early maturation, unselfish love for the motherland and people, hard work, high spirituality, national traditions and customs, moral and ethical values of the Turkmen people [...] became for the head of the Turkmen state, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, a school of courage and maturity," TDH said.
A lover of all things fast, Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is now heavily involved in promoting bicycles ahead of a national cycling race scheduled for September 1.
Earlier this month, Berdymukhamedov kicked off a summertime cycling drive in the hot desert nation by appearing on national television and winning a cycling race.
Berdymukhamedov tends to win when he competes. Last year he won his country’s first car race after entering at the last minute. The BBC reported that “the apparently choreographed display seemed designed to enhance the president's image as a man of action.” In April, the president won an $11-million purse in a horse race just seconds before taking a nasty spill.
But today Turkmen live in what Berdymukhamedov has dubbed “The Era of Supreme Happiness of the Stable State.” So nothing can thwart a bit of sporting fun.
On August 24, Berdymukhamedov inspected thoroughfares in his capital, Ashgabat, and took part in a ride with a group of professional cyclists, Turkmenistan's state-run TDH news agency reported.
“In the era of might and happiness, state policy priorities include developing a movement for physical training and healthy living, as well as high-achievement sports, creating all the necessary conditions for improving the nation's health, and shaping a generation that is physically healthy and spiritually perfect,” TDH quoted Berdymukhamedov as saying.
Turkmenistan’s president has dismantled some of his predecessor’s personality cult – only to replace it with a new one, in the spirit of two for the price of one: Aside from filling television screens and billboards with images of himself, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is intent on immortalizing his father.
Citing Turkmen state television, AFP reported on August 13 that Berdymukhamedov had unveiled a 5-meter bronze bust of his father, Myalikguly Berdymukhamedov, to mark the patriarch’s 81st birthday. The bust is housed at a compound newly built for the Interior Ministry’s military unit No. 1001, where the elder Berdymukhamedov served and retired as a lieutenant colonel back in 1982. Under the terms of a parliamentary resolution last year, the unit now bears Berdymukhamedov Senior’s name.
“Myalikguly Berdymukhamedov enjoys a great reputation as a man who managed to bring up a highly humane son who is infinitely loyal to the Turkmen people and sincerely loves his people, showing a brilliant example of selfless service to his people. The courageous image of Myalikguly Berdymukhamedov, the father of the distinguished president, and his highest humanity serve as [an] enormous example for imitation for all of us,” the resolution says, according to the official Turkmenistan.ru.
After a decade of grilling students on the former president’s “book of the soul,” this fall Turkmenistan will remove the Ruhnama from its school curriculum.
A news website run by Turkmen exiles in Vienna reported this week that a new academic program drafted by Turkmenistan’s Education Ministry for the country’s secondary schools did not include Saparmurat Niyazov’s 2001 Ruhnama, which was once required reading not only for students, but for government employees, too.
According to the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, subjects like economics will replace classes dedicated to the book, which became part of the curriculum in 2002.
Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency confirmed the report and, citing an unnamed ministry official, said on August 1 that “prospective university students will still have to study the Ruhnama for their entry exams.”
Niyazov – who called himself Turkmenbashi, or “Father of the Turkmen” – once instructed youth to read the spiritual guide three times a day in order to secure a place in heaven.
Two years after Niyazov’s 2006 death, the Ruhnama was removed from the university curricula and was taught only one hour per week in secondary schools, RIA Novosti said.