When the 60-million-euro super-yacht Galkynysh swept into Turkmenistan’s run-down port of Turkmenbashi, ending a journey that had taken it from Italy, through the Black Sea and the Volga-Don Canal, it was a national event.
The state newspaper pictured President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on board, beaming in a blue-and-white-striped Breton smock, a navy blue sailing cap perched on his head, and a pair of binoculars in his hands. Government officials, the local media and foreign investors all rushed to ride the wave of maritime enthusiasm. The country’s cabinet came on board to discuss important matters of state.
An editorial in the state newspaper imagined Avaza, the luxury Caspian Sea resort into which the country has already pumped $1.5 billion of gas revenues, hosting an annual regatta where crews would compete for an Avaza Cup. Foreign construction companies who have built businesses fulfilling the architectural fantasies of Turkmenistan’s presidents, pledged to construct a Caspian version of Monaco.
Turkey’s Polimeks said it would build a luxurious yacht club. Its rival Bouygues, from France, tacked a marina onto a five-star hotel it was proposing for Avaza. Belda, another Turkish construction company, did the same.
Two and a half years later, however, Galkynysh -- the Turkmen word for “revival” -- sits disconsolately in Turkmenbashi’s grubby military harbor, and these maritime schemes have all come to nothing. The yacht is barely used, and then only for coast-hugging journeys seven and a half miles to the president’s beach vacation home, according to locals.
“He never goes out into the open sea, he just potters around,” said an old woman living above the harbor. “He doesn’t come very often. Maybe only once every two months.”
The boat’s original skipper, a former captain in a caviar fishing fleet, was laid off earlier this year, putting to waste the two months of intensive training he received in Livorno, Italy, home to luxury yacht-builder Benetti.
Officials at the Turkmenbashi port authority now deny that Galkynysh had ever even been intended for leisure cruising. “If you are talking about the president’s yacht, we don’t consider it as a yacht,” one said in his harbor office. “It’s just a place where ministers and official people can come to hold meetings.”
Berdymukhamedov's every whim is aped by officials, so this Orwellian formulation is a pretty good indication that the boat is now no longer in favor.
According to an alleged US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, the president was already of two minds when Galkynysh was delivered.
“The president had originally wanted a larger yacht similar to one owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, but that yacht would not fit through the canals leading to the Caspian Sea,” a US diplomat reported. If true, the president was asking quite a lot of Itera, the Russian gas company which is thought to have gifted the boat. At 59 meters, Galkynysh may be only a third of the size of Eclipse, Abramovich’s newest yacht, but it nonetheless ranked among the top sixty longest yachts in the world when it was first exhibited at the Monaco Boat Show in 2007. This May, it still made for a magnificent sight, as it glided back into its mooring after picking up fuel ahead of a presidential visit.
The boat boasts a helipad, an elevator, a sauna, an on-deck gym, and its own library.
“It's a tailor-made boat,” Alessandro Massari, who created the boat’s interior, told EurasiaNet.org. “I've used leathers very much and also mother-of-pearl inlays, flower inlays, and sophisticated Italian fabrics. I believe the president was impressed.”
But, to the disappointment of yacht-builder Benetti and others, it has not started a craze. Indeed, more than two years after Galkynysh’s arrival, there remains only one other leisure cruiser in the country. Serdar, an unremarkable motorboat given to Berdymukhamedov’s predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov -- The Turkmenbashi, or “Leader of the Turkmen” -- in the 1990s, now takes foreign oil workers out on weekend jaunts.
Plans to build a yard to manufacture small cruising boats appear to have gotten nowhere.
“The idea of having yachts here was never going to work,” argued a foreign businessman who has long worked in Turkmenistan. “Even if they had the money, no businessman or government official would dare to draw that amount of attention to themselves.”
He scoffs at the idea of anyone wanting to cruise the chilly Caspian waters anyway, given the oil slick permanently covering the coast of Baku, across the waters. “Yachting isn’t just about sailing, its about ending up somewhere you want to go,” he said.
So this summer, as government officials arrive for their holidays at Avaza's eight high-rise hotels, they can look out onto the patch of bare earth Polimeks has fenced off for its yacht club. The company has committed to footing the $25-million cost itself rather than using government money, but won’t say when work is slated to begin. And the closest they'll get to a regatta is when they take a boat tour of the artificial river that runs for five miles behind the hotels, with Victorian gas lamps, Rococo bridges, and glass-roofed Parisian-style tourist boats.
There, they will find a replica schooner cemented to the canal floor.
For the impoverished people of Turkmenbashi, however, the president's lagging enthusiasm has come as a relief. Whenever the president decides to pay a visit to Galkynysh, police arrive in droves and force them to stay in their houses for the duration of his stay, locals say.
Richard Orange is an Almaty-based journalist specializing in Central Asian affairs.