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Under the late President Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan earned a degree of fame for grandiose projects of questionable utility. Niyazov died in 2006, but successor Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has taken a page from Turkmenbashi's book of the absurd.

The new president returned from Beijing so impressed by China's efforts that he announced plans for a $100 million Olympic complex in Ashgabat, complete with the Kara-Kum (Gara-Gum) Desert's only ice hockey arena. Aside from the 10,000-seat arena, an ice hockey school on the premises will allow Turkmenistan to train for future international tournaments. A Turkish construction company has already been picked to do much of the work.

Niyazov spent hundreds of millions of dollars on projects like a chain of underperforming five-star hotels in the capital (one built by each ministry) in a country where the average wage is still between $60 and $80 per month. Niyazov also ordered the construction of an artificial lake in the middle of the vast Kara-Kum desert, an artificial river with fountains in Ashgabat, a mosque to hold 10,000 worshippers in Niyazov's home village of Gipchak, and an ice-skating rink and arctic zoo with penguins.

Early in his presidency, Berdymukhammedov has displayed more modest ambitions, with the possible exception of the Avaza tourist complex now being built on the Caspian shore.

Is the new sports complex the start of a new era of opulent buildings and monuments like those that drained state coffers under Niyazov? It certainly raises questions, with the general population facing water and energy rations and most people struggling to eke out a living.

Or could Turkmenistan be mulling a bid to host future Olympic Games? Turkmenistan would not be the first Central Asian country to do so; Kazakhstan bid for the 2014 games, and Uzbekistan, less than one year after independence, sought to host the 2000 games.

-- Bruce Pannier

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