It was almost seven years ago that Turkmenistan announced it would host the 2017 edition of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. To mark the announcement, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in late December, 2010, led a pack of government officials on a grueling trek up the Walk of Health, a steep concrete staircase poured into the side of the foothills outside the capital, Ashgabat, as an exhortation to salutary living.
Preparations for the games have been inflicting misery on the population ever since.
On August 17, it will be exactly a month before the competition begins. To memorialize the start of the countdown, the government will repeat the car-free experiment it ran on July 29, although this time only in Ashgabat.
From 7 am to 7 pm, only public transport – including taxis and emergency vehicles – will be permitted to circulate around the city. Anybody unable to cram into the packed buses or pay for a taxi will be free to cycle, as Berdymukhamedov has advised, in temperatures of around 40 degrees Celsius (105 degrees Fahrenheit). Those who do not own a bicycle – which is most people – will just have to walk.
To sweeten the deal, the government has decided to push one of the country’s most elaborately observed national holidays, Melon Day, forward by four days from August 13.
“By tradition, on all holidays, we greet our guests with national sweet foods. And melons are our favorite treat,” Berdymukhamedov told the Cabinet on August 9. “By combining our celebrations for the Day of the Turkmen Melon and other important dates for our state and society, these events will become stronger symbols of prosperity.”
Judging by the inconvenience caused by the July 29 car-free day, the event is more likely to be recalled as another government-induced headache. Early in the morning on that day, large crowds of people stormed every available bus, which were far from able to carry everybody. The most desperate would have been willing to splurge on taxis, except there were few cars to be found as the state-run cab companies had instead focused their business on the airport, where they hiked their regular fares by more than two-fold.
One elderly woman told a EurasiaNet.org correspondent in tears that she was unable to visit the hospital, where her daughter had just undergone an operation. She only got to the hospital in the evening, once the embargo on cars had been lifted.
As the car ban fell on a Saturday, many were forced to cancel long-planned wedding celebrations at the last minute.
The government’s indifference to public welfare when it comes to these games is nothing new. The most egregious rights violations were amply documented in a 2015 report by Amnesty International, which used satellite imagery to document how Ashgabat’s authorities had embarked on a vast wave of evictions to make way for the sporting facilities. The worst-hit neighborhood was Choganly.
“The total number of plots affected reached 14,000, including at least 10,000 structures,” the Amnesty report noted at the time. “A local observer who visited the site following the start of demolitions estimated that at least 20,000 people had been affected, and many residents were still living in ‘ruins.’”
The cost of making this all happen has been staggering. In November 2010, while Turkmenistan was still trying to secure hosting rights for the games from the Kuwait-based Olympic Council of Asia, Berdymukhamedov symbolically laid the first brick of the athletes’ village. The construction costs at the time were estimated at $5 billion. Some observers believe the actual costs are higher, but how much money the Turkmen government will end up spending on the 10-day competition is likely to remain a mystery.
When Turkmenistan was declared host of the indoor games, the country was riding relatively high on its reserves of natural gas. China was building pipelines and the prospect of selling gas to an array of markets did not seem so remote. Since then, Ashgabat has bungled its gas-export strategy so badly that China, to which Turkmenistan owes billions of dollars, is the only significant buyer.
With global energy prices having tanked in recent years, Turkmenistan’s economy is in serious trouble. Instead of paring back the country’s outsized sporting ambitions, or reconsidering any number of other white elephant projects, Berdymukhamedov opted to scrap the decades-long system of free utilities. In addition, shops regularly run out of staple goods like sugar and cooking oil. Unemployment has long been suspected of running at around 50 percent, although it is hard to determine a figure since the government is deeply hostile to scrutiny from international organizations and reporters. Whatever the real unemployment rate, it has certainly grown over the past year amid downsizing in the increasingly unprofitable energy sector.
National media have been selling the games hard. Every single issue of state newspapers brims with features about the competition, boasting of the many facilities that have been built in preparation. Advertisements displaying every type of sport in the competition – all accompanied by images of Wepaly, the cartoon Alabai sheepdog that is the mascot of the games– are incessantly looped on state television and roadside jumbo screens.
Wepaly, incidentally, was a curious exercise in waste. In a previous incarnation, the smiley mascot came in a vivid green color and a curious tattoo design on his face. Berdymukhamedov reportedly did not like the look, so the mascot was swiftly pulled in favor of a more traditional and literal representation of a cartoon dog.
Less cuddly are the draconian security restrictions being put in place for the games. Turkmenistan is closing its land borders and tightening restrictions on entry for foreigners – the exact opposite of the policy adopted by most other countries hosting major, prestige-building international sporting events. Turkmen embassies around the world stopped handing out visas altogether earlier this month.
To heap insult upon inconvenience, whenever restrictions, outright bans or cutbacks – like the aforementioned utilities cut and the car-free day – are implemented, state media claim the moves are a response to public demand.
“This is just the height of cynicism. First they create a whole bunch of problems for people, and then they say it has been done ‘in accordance with numerous requests from the general population,’” 58-year old Ashgabat resident Durdy told EurasiaNet.org.