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
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
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
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
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 at the country, you see all these
fabulous marble buildings, opulent palaces, mosques," he says. …