Blanketed by vast deserts, Turkmenistan sits atop some of the world's largest natural-gas reserves. As Russia and the West look to secure new gas and oil supplies in a tightening race for energy security, this Central Asian country has landed squarely in their sights.
Last weekend, Russia secured a deal for a new pipeline to take Turkmenistan's gas north, delivering a serious setback to US and European hopes for one that would siphon the gas to the West - bypassing Russia's increasingly powerful grip on energy resources and routes.
But the heightened attention and potential for wealth doesn't necessarily mean things will get better for Turkmenistan's citizens.
Like other resource-rich developing countries, including neighboring Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, this ex-Soviet state has struggled to translate its fossil-fuel reserves into higher living standards. Unemployment in Turkmenistan is estimated at 60 percent, with 58 percent of the population living below the poverty line.
Compounding this so-called "resource curse" is the legacy of former President Saparmurat Niyazov, who during his two decades in power isolated Turkmenistan from the world and plunged state funds into grand construction projects rather than human development.
"You have twin curses at work," says Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. Soviet-inspired authoritarianism is the region's primary affliction, she says, adding that in Turkmenistan, "Niyazov's own perverse and criminal cult of personality made that situation much more acute."
Mr. Niyazov, who died in December, forced the education system to build curricula around his own book of spiritual writings; built monuments in honor of himself; renamed the months of the year after himself and his family members; and banned movie theaters, opera, and ballet as "un-Turkmen."
President controls much of gas revenues
Today, the capital's calm veneer - sepulchral expanses of white marble blocks interrupted by few people, advertisements, or bits of trash - could lull one into thinking that Turkmenistan had entered the Golden Age proclaimed by Niyazov. But local residents, still feeling too vulnerable to give their names, paint a starker picture.
Under the previous president, "for the first time in my life, I saw people hunting through garbage to make a living.... How can that be a good life?" asks a middle-aged man.
"There's no work, no food, no education, no training, no pensions - everything that should be in a normal, civilized country," another adds.
Tom Mayne, a campaigner with the anti-corruption advocacy group Global Witness, says Turkmenistan's resource wealth benefited a precious few. "If you look around …