Turkmenistan rarely allows in foreign journalists, but there is not much it can do about travel video bloggers arriving on tourist visas.
There is an irony in this since a successful YouTuber enjoys a reach far beyond anything most print journalists can even dream about. And video travelogues from Turkmenistan are invariably a variation on the same theme in describing a warm and friendly population looked over by a hyper-paranoid police state.
When travelers arrive in the capital, Ashgabat, they marvel — as Indian YouTuber Nomadic Tour did, to take a recent example — at the canyons of marble-clad buildings and the empty roads. The team of frothy 20-somethings behind the Yes Theory YouTube channel (8.2 million subscribers) giggle with glee at the deserted sidewalks and roads of the city at midday. That video, titled “Traveling to the Strangest Country on Earth,” has been viewed almost 3 million times.
Uninformed foreigners view this as an amusing quirk, whereas it is in fact the result of feckless incompetence, as an article published on January 17 on Amsterdam-based outlet Turkmen.news amply documents.
Take the lack of thought given to the citizen moving about on foot. There is not a single pedestrian-activated traffic crossing in Ashgabat, the outlet explains. Underpasses at times require people to walk down to a depth of two stories. Traversing divided highway-style roads in the downtown entails time-consuming treks — not a welcome proposition in a city where temperature routinely hit the high 40s (Celsius) in summer.
That last detail makes public transport unappealing. Buses have no air conditioning, making them a potential death trap for anybody with a weak heart. The high floors, meanwhile, make it difficult for anybody with heavy shopping or strollers to board. The much-vaunted air conditioned bus stops are few and far between.
For all former President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s proselytizing about the virtues of the bicycle, infrastructure for this means of transport is near non-existent.
As Turkmen.news argues editorially, the look of Ashgabat is the result of valuing form in its most literal sense over function: the airport is shaped like a bird, the Foreign Ministry looks like a globe, a Dentistry Center is in the form of a tooth, the Central Bank is a giant gold bar, and a state publishing house is built in the semblance of a giant open book.
“At the same time, no one even tries to take into account the needs of little people living between these giant teeth, books and globes,” the website concludes.
The result is a ghost city.
The same appears likely to happen to Turkmenistan’s newest city, Arkadag, which continues to occupy much of the thoughts of its founder, the ex-president, and now-National Leader, Berdymukhamedov.
On January 20, Berdymukhamedov visited Arkadag to conduct another inspection on the ongoing second stage of construction there. At one stage he offered feedback on proposed designs for an Agriculture University complex, the buildings of which will resemble the buds of cotton plants or ears of wheat, as Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan has pointed out.
Berdymukhamedov is already alive to the possibility that he is building another vacant urban center and has expressed some frustration with the lackluster quality of the campaign to get people to resettle there.
“These issues must be approached very responsibly and comprehensively. Everything necessary must be done to ensure a happy life for people in the new city,” said Berdymukhamedov. Improving “the culture of trade and establishing … a service sector” are priorities, he said. In other words, nobody wants to live in Arkadag because there are no decent shops or basic amenities.
If things have not changed since July, when a correspondent for Chronicles visited the then-freshly inaugurated city, it is not hard to see why uptake has been weak. That account spoke in part about the complications inherent in buying property in Arkadag. It had initially been bruited that apartments would as an incentive be transferred into the ownership of residents after a decade had elapsed, but Chronicles said its sources later said the talk was of homes being sold with 30-year mortgages.
Because Arkadag is still mostly a building site, there is little employment going around. In a freer economy, this could become a boom town with entrepreneurs moving to capitalize on the energy inherent in such grand new projects. But as this is a centrally planned, top-down exercise that enthusiasm is absent.
Just to make matters more suffocating, a vast array of CCTV cameras will make future Arkadag denizens perhaps the most surveilled people in the region.
Not that the street is the only place that the Turkmen state conducts surveillance.
At the January 19 Cabinet meeting, President Serdar Berdymukhamedov (the son of the former president) heard a briefing from Mammetkhan Chakiyev, the head of Turkmenistan’s state agency for transport and communications, about work being done to strengthen the country’s cybersecurity infrastructure. Since Turkmenistan is currently cut off from most of the global internet, courtesy of its suspicious security services, it feels like the risks should be modest.
Berdymukhamedov the younger has nevertheless signed off on an official resolution on “planned measures to strengthen … cybersecurity in Turkmenistan.”
One wheeze cooked up to limit the exposure of Turkmens to evil outside internet is to provide indigenous alternatives to popular platforms. The government has accordingly created Belet Video, a video-hosting platform that is presumably intended to lure people away from YouTube.
There is an easy if crude method to assess the money-wasting failure that is Belet Video, which has been up and running for more than three years now. The daily evening Turkmen state TV news bulletin is uploaded both there and on YouTube. To take the example of a recent broadcast, the January 21 bulletin was viewed 2,700 times on YouTube, only a dozen people (at last count) watched the same program on Belet Video.
Of course, both sets of figures are weak and demonstrate that the Turkmen public is either unable or unwilling to consume the news fed to them by state outlets.
People are more eager, where possible, to seek out accounts of the alleged thuggery perpetrated by the extended ruling family.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, reported on January 15 on a particularly lurid incident said to have occurred earlier in the month. It is claimed that on January 6, a cousin of the president descended on a bar in a popular shopping mall, sending other terrified patrons fleeing for the doors. When Shamurad Rejepov saw that some visitors were either too oblivious or brazen to make themselves scarce, he allegedly took it out on the barman, whom he beat up with the assistance of his security detail. Other victims purportedly included a pregnant woman, whom Rejepov — known popularly as Shami the Lawless — slapped in the face.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.