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Turkmenistan: No rest for the wicked

The president’s rap duet this week eclipsed Turkmenistan’s plans for space development and new eye-popping inflation figures.

Turkmen President Berdymukhamedov answers questions from the press before his harrowing drive through a route of the 2018 Amul–Hazar International rally. (Photo: turkmenistan.gov.tm)

Turkmenistan’s president has gone on his summer break, leading to a phenomenal surge of silliness coming out of the country.

Every step taken by Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov during his activity-filled repose in the Caspian resort town of Awaza has been watched with eager attention by state media.

Turkmenistan president
Berdymukhamedov kicked off his holidays with a bike ride (turkmenistan.gov.tm)

The holidays by the sea began with Berdymukhamedov and his teenage grandson Kerimguly taking a bicycle journey along the coast. Pictures of the president show him astride a top-of-the-range, high-speed German-made Spitzing e-bike, a model that costs around $10,000 – an unthinkable sum for virtually all Turkmen citizens. On July 10, TDH news agency reported that the president has also crammed in some book-writing, making progress toward adding to his already prodigious output. His last work, published last month, was a paean to his beloved mother. 

Berdymukhamedov also managed some rally-car racing. State media was on hand to provide some oddly specific details. 

“Before getting into the car, the president carefully cleared his sports shoes of sand. As he sat at the steering wheel of the racing car and fastened his seatbelt, the head of state checked that the controls and the navigation and communication systems were functioning. In this manner, as in all his undertakings, the president of Turkmenistan demonstrated his thorough approach,” the state news agency reported.

In the ensuing race, Berdymukhamedov initially allowed his competitor to surge ahead out a sense of Corinthian sportsmanship, but victory was nonetheless his.

“The Turkmen leader was greeted with stormy applause. By covering 18 kilometers in 14 minutes and 30 seconds, the president of Turkmenistan, as always, achieved a brilliant result,” TDH glowed.

Again getting his grandchildren in on the action, Berdymukhamedov took a cruise on the Caspian in his Italian-made $70 million super-yacht, named Galkynysh after the country’s mega-gas field.

The indubitable highlight of the week, however, has been the president’s jaw-dropping rap duet with Kerimguly, which was amply covered on local television. To give the song an additional international flavor, Kerimguly delivered his verses in stilted English.

If this all sounds like the self-indulgence of a deluded despot, that’s because it is. And yet, there is something even more pathetic and tragic at play. The ostensible justification for this prancing about in Awaza is to kickstart the resort’s prospects as a destination for international tourists. Those efforts are clearly doomed to fail. While hospitable on paper, Turkmenistan’s government remains in its deeds deeply hostile to foreign visitors, rejecting visa applications at will and forcing those it allows in to sign up to costly tours. Berdymukhamedov’s public relations efforts draw only withering ridicule and certainly little desire to visit, other than from tourists wishing to see an authoritarian oddity for themselves.

(In a something-or-nothing detail, Berdymukhamedov made a point of advising/ordering his Cabinet also to take their holidays in Awaza this summer. In fact, the officials were roped into taking part in some of his sporty jaunts. On one level, this is presumably meant to attest to Awaza’s charms, but it is just as likely that the president wants to keep a close eye on his minions in these troubled times.)

The close reporting by state media on Berdymukhamedov’s vacation stands in marked contrast to the lack of reports about the state of the economy, which is dismal. 

Indeed, local media is the very last place any Turkmen would look to find out what is going on inside their own country. But access to the outside world may become ever more complicated. 

Back in April 2015, Turkmenistan launched its first telecommunications satellite, known as TurkmenAlem 52°E, amid much fanfare. The satellite was built by Thales Alenia Space and was launched onboard a Falcon 9 vehicle operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company. 

Berdymukhamedov
Turkmenistan's head of state races to the finish line. (Photo: turkmenistan.gov.tm) 

According to a report in Turkmen state media, the satellite currently only provides Turkmen national television channels, but negotiations are also purportedly “being conducted with European firms to service corporate satellite networks for the corporate sector.” The exile-run news website Chronicles of Turkmenistan noted on July 14 that the satellite may have at one point had a commercial customer – having broadcast a handful of Bulgarian TV channels in November – but these are apparently no longer being shown.

What is potentially more ominous is that there have been suggestions in the past that the satellite be used to deliver internet access across the country. That solution would give the government even more refined abilities to filter out content not to its pleasing.

Officials are undeterred by TurkmenAlem’s signal lack of success. Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported in December that 1.3 billion manat ($370 million at the official rate) was being set aside for space development and the launch of a second satellite. If that were to go ahead, it would surely prove another black hole for the government's budget.

Then again, 1.3 billion manat is not quite as much as the official rate (3.5 to the dollar) would have people believe. The black market rate for the dollar this week stood at between 14.2 and 15.4 manat, according to Chronicles of Turkmenistan. This marks a slight uptick for the manat and follows a series of reported raids on bazaars and arrests of people suspected of engaging in currency trading. RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, said in their report on the raids that traders at Ashgabat’s Mir and Russian bazaar markets have been required to sign documents stating they agree to be prosecuted if they engage in buying and selling dollars.

Azatlyk has also cited concerns over inflation, noting by way of an example that Coca-Cola is retailing in areas in northern Turkmenistan at 24 manats per liter. At the official rate, that would put the cost of a bottle of Coca-Cola at around $6.85. That outstrips even famously costly nations like Norway.

The overall inflation bulletin is mixed, but veering toward bad. 

In findings released on July 16, Chronicles of Turkmenistan observed that while the price of some staples, such as vegetables, has decreased in recent weeks, costs continue to soar for most other goods, especially when it comes to imports. Fruit is up 121 percent since January 1, according to the outlet.

And in maybe the most devastating news of the week – for some – it may soon get much harder to drink all these troubles away. Azatlyk reported on July 15 that the authorities have been seizing alcoholic beverages from stores. There is nothing new about the Turkmen government trying to clamp down on booze, so the headlines may be premature. But all the same, it adds to the pile of things to worry about.

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

Turkmenistan: No rest for the wicked

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