The opening of Turkmenistan’s newest city, Arkadag, was performed with the requisite fanfare on June 29.
As state media has tirelessly reminded the public, this roughly $5 billion-plus bauble is a “smart city” in which life will be regulated by digital and green technologies, whatever that might mean.
The real attitude of the Turkmen authorities to information technology was best illustrated, however, by how internet speeds slowed drastically in the days ahead of this event. As RFE/RL’s Turkmen service reported on July 1, connections were so slow that it became impossible to use censorship-circumventing VPN services. The outlet speculates that the government was eager to limit the dissemination of unfavorable coverage ahead of the bash.
Internet problems persisted even after all the revelry was done. Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news reported that as of July 3, Cloudfare data indicated that online activity in Turkmenistan was at only around 12 percent of its maximum level. On June 26, three days before the ceremony, it was 86 percent.
One feature of Arkadag’s would-be smartness is that homes are fitted with remotely controlled devices of the kind beloved of tech websites. President Serdar Berdymukhamedov was shown the setup in which household appliances, everything for the thermostat to robot vacuum cleaners, are controlled by means of a tablet. How these clever systems will fare when censors decide the internet is too fast is anybody guess. It is in any case highly doubtful every single home in Arkadag has been so lavishly kitted out.
The reason that June 29 was chosen for the inauguration of the city was that this marked the date of former President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the father of the incumbent, turning 66. The very name Arkadag, a term meaning patron-protector, was picked as this is the honorific by which Berdymukhamedov is known.
For all that, Berdymukhamedov the elder was conspicuously absent on the day itself. Having pushed through this gargantuan expenditure to bolster his own personality cult, the ex-president, who now goes by the title of National Leader, chose this moment to embark on a trip to Mecca to perform the hajj in a showy demonstration of piety. He did get an aerial peek at his new creation while flying to Saudi Arabia, though.
“Along the route, the plane flew over the new city of Arkadag, where final preparations were underway for the start of celebrations on the occasion of its inauguration,” state media reported.
Berdymukhamedov the elder took his favored grandson, Kerimguly, along for the jaunt, as seen in state TV footage.
The National Leader took advantage of his presence in Saudi Arabia to meet with the president of the Islamic Development Bank, Ahmed Mohamed Ali Al-Madani. In a detail of mind-boggling chutzpah, given the colossally expensive boondoggle being inaugurated back home, Berdymukhamedov rattled his begging tin in the hope of getting the IDB to part with money to fund transportation infrastructure.
For anybody seeking the sense of Berdymukhamedov’s actions, help is at hand. Ahead of his departure to Mecca, the National Leader informed a gathering of the Council of Elders that he has written a follow-up to his 2022 book, The Meaning of My Life. That work, which he is said to have dashed off while on holiday, was described in state media as a memoir enriched with philosophical insights and literary flourishes.
“At our last meeting, you said that you were looking forward to the continuation of that book,” Berdymukhamedov said on June 28. “I want to tell you that I have good news. I recently finished writing [another] book: ‘The Continuation of the Meaning of My Life.’”
And that isn’t all. Berdymukhamedov has warmed the hearts of his admirers by announcing that a third volume is on the way.
It is difficult to know exactly how many books the former president is said to have written at this point. Even state media cannot do much better than vaguely volunteer the figure of “about 70.” Previous works have included studies on medical plants, history, Akhal-Teke horses, carpets, music, cooking, tea, proverbs, and dogs. And Turkmens have no choice but to submit to the unbidden publication of the idle musings of their away-with-the-fairies leader.
The regime’s megalomaniacal excesses are funded by natural gas revenues, but not all is well in that sector.
Turkmen.news carried a detailed article on June 28 that dwelled on the apparent infighting going on between Ashirguly Begliyev, who has since mid-May been serving as the president’s advisor on oil and gas matters, and Batyr Amanov, the current deputy prime minister with the portfolio for overseeing the oil and gas industry. The website reported, citing unnamed sources, that Begliyev is “sabotaging Amanov’s orders without concern for how the industry will be affected.”
In a troubling indication that not all is smooth sailing chez the Berdymukhamedovs, the split falls along family lines. Begliyev is said to be the president’s man, while Amanov is aligned with Arkadag.
Begliyev had, in fact, been appointed to Amanov’s current job in February, only to be shunted upstairs three months later after some tinkering with the personnel.
Amanov, meanwhile, is a classic case of failing upward. He was moved to his current job after an unhappy three-year stint as chairman of the Turkmengaz monopoly. The lowlight of his time there was a gas sales agreement with Uzbekistan going up in smoke following a mysterious pipeline incident this past winter. And he is not especially liked either. He has previously been described by Turkmen.news sources as being quite incompetent, and deeply corrupt to boot. His merciless habit of pumping people for bribes has apparently earned him the nicknames “Mujahedin” and “Terminator.”
If Amanov has any job at all, it is likely because his cousin is married to Berdymukhamedov the younger’s sister.
In any case, Begliyev is at present reportedly winning this battle of wills. The new head of Turkmengaz, along with top figures in the Turkmenneft state oil company are his people. Turkmen.news sources say that these officials routinely hinder Amanov by ignoring his instructions, holding up paperwork and spreading gossip about him.
Amanov, meanwhile, is said to be gathering compromising information on all his opponents, hoping at some point to demonstrate their incompetence and corruption to his sponsor, Berdymukhamedov the elder.
Turkmen.news says this situation has created a particularly troubling predicament for foreign investors, since they do not know whom they are supposed to bribe, and they are unwilling to hand kickbacks to both camps.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.