Turkmenbashi the Great: Rich and Prosperous Thanks to the Discovery of Massive Oil and Gas Reserves, Turkmenistan Is Attempting to Come to Grips with Modernity and Its Massive Wealth. (Turkmenistan)

Article excerpt

Which country supplies its citizens with free water, electricity and cooking gas, while a gallon of premium petrol costs only eight US cents? If your answer was Libya, or one of the petroleum-rich Gulf States, you Would be wrong. The country which offers these remarkable subsidies and where every packet of tea, every bottle of locally produced vodka and every television programme has a small golden profile of "The Father" superimposed in the top right-hand corner is Turkmenistan. Here, in this central Asian Muslim country, every vestige of life and every political decision is controlled by Saparmurad Niyazov, the last of the great Communist party leaders, and now president-for-life of the independent Asian Republic of Turkmenistan.

The country that Turkmenbashi-the-Great, as Niyazov prefers to be called, rules over, is peaceful and progressive in a garish, waste-of-money kind of way. It is also a nation of five million people with a great history and vast potential, wealth, its huge oil reserves and 100 trillion cubic feet of gas rank it among the world's top 12 potential energy producers. It is also a country where one man rule is unquestioned, where no government minister or official will ever make an independent decision, and where the treasury's foreign debt is $2.3 billion, despite yearly oil revenues of $3 billion plus.

So where does all the money go? President Niyazov is the sole controller of Turkmenistan's offshore `presidential fund', from which sums are dispensed at his direction. As part of the modernisation of the country, he has spent billions on a new inner-core city in the capital, Ashgabat. The city is made up of a vast collection of white marble structures. These buildings include the presidential residence, a new national museum, 30 new multi-storey hotels that house almost no visitors and row upon row of spanking new apartment houses, all standing empty because so few of the local $30-a-month average wage earners can afford to buy one.

This magnificent infrastructure is floodlit at night Las Vegas-style, the centrepiece being a 200-foot-tall arch topped with a gold-plated statue of Turmenbashi-the-Great himself. Rotating through 360 degrees every 24 hours, the statue of Turmenbashi follows the sun, facing south towards Afghanistan in the morning, into Iran at noon, Turkey, Azerbaijan and southern Russia by late afternoon, and finally Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as it completes its rotation of the earth.

Turkmenistan is a country of few assets, other than those of the hydro-carbon kind. Of its 188,456 square miles, four-fifths is desert. Some 4.6 million (77%) of the population speak Turkmen, Russian (12%), Uzbek (9%) and Kazakh (2%).

Turkmenistan has one great physical asset, the 650-mile Kara Kum Canal. By diverting water from the Amu Darya, one of the two great central Asian rivers, the canal was bequeathed to the nation when the Soviets left in the early 1990s. However, the waterway is leaking at a rate that is raising concern among environmentalists and neighbouring Uzbekistan. Unless repair work is undertaken urgently, experts fear southern Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are likely to be cut off from any major source of water.

President-for-life Niyazov's presence permeates every aspect of Turkmenistan life. His book The Ruhnama--a stream of consciousness guide book his officials compare to the Koran--constantly invokes the memory of Turkmen's glorious past. …