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Turkmenistan: Glitter Drains The National Purse

Ashgabat, 24 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Ashgabat last week was the venue for elaborate festivities to mark National Flag Day, as well as President Saparmurad Niyazov's 57th birthday.

Among other activities, a military parade, horse races and the Turkmenbashi Football Cup, with a $125,000 prize going to the winning team, took place on February 19. The extravagance of the celebration and the blurring of lines between Rome and Ceasar's due are characteristic of the otherwise rigidly controlled nation-building process underway in Turkmenistan.

Overall, the government in Turkmenistan has substituted form for substance, and continues to rely on festivities and glittery, high-profile projects to persuade the population, as well as outsiders, that Turkmenistan is on the fast track to prosperity. The government's building priorities represent an excellent barometer of this. A glance at the new structures, largely built by foreign labor and contractors, dotting Turkmenistan's landscape today suggest the public interest has been subordinated to the private interests of the country's present leadership.

First, although Turkmenistan has almost no tourism, within the space of half a decade a large airport and about 30 five-star hotels have cropped up in the capital and its immediate environs. The airport alone can handle a traffic volume estimated to be 100 times Turkmenistan's needs. Likewise, the number of hotels, not to mention casinos, greatly exceeds the republic's needs -- especially at a time when visitors are few and far between.

Second, although Turkmen are Muslim, they have historically practiced their religion in an informal, unceremonious way. Despite this, Turkmenistan now can lay claim to possessing the largest modern mosque in Central Asia. The mosque in Goek-Depe, named after the president, Saparmurad Haji (pilgrim), is a blatant, if ironic, testament to Niyazov's shift from committed Communist Party Secretary to national leader.

Third, the massive, 8,500-square-meter Palace of Youth is lovely -- but, it was executed hurriedly, in only a year and a-half, and like other new structures, reflects the President's penchant for the dramatic. A similar desire to impress quickly with glitz can also be seen in the Independence Park of Culture and Rest: the park, with white and pink swans in one pool and dolphins in another, was quickly installed so it could be opened in conjunction with Turkmenistan's fifth year of independence celebrations late last October.

Critics contend these sights satisfy the eye at best, and are draining on the national purse at precisely the time Turkmenistan desperately needs to confront severe economic problems in order to consolidate its independence. They say thinly-populated, but hydrocarbon-rich Turkmenistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world. With an insufficient and antiquated infrastructure, an ongoing and steep production decline, and record poor cotton and grain harvests, they say the government's building priorities represent a champagne and caviar diet for those unable to afford even beer. Until Turkmenistan is able to reach solvent clients for its vast natural gas output, the country is in no position to undertake any but the most critical development projects, they argue.

That criticism might be justified, especially when one considers the mushrooming number of Presidential residences found in Turkmenistan. The country's Serdar, or leader, today has domiciles in each of the country's five provinces as well as a large mansion, with three separate security walls surrounding it, in the Kopet Dagh mountains in Firuza, near the border with Iran.

In addition to these six residences, the official Presidential Palace, replete with a golden dome and a waterfall, is about to be completed in Ashgabat. The structure occupies a large swath of the capital, and is being constructed by a French contractor at an estimated cost of $120 million.

Finally, yet another structure once used by geologists, on the outskirts of Ashgabat on Turkmenbasi street, is also being converted for the President's private use.

It appears that, just as Niyazov's birthday overshadowed National Flag Day last week, the republic's post independence building boom seems geared more to meeting the needs of the President rather than that of the public.

Here are the words of an oath of allegiance chanted by all school children and read on state-run radio and TV at the opening of each program:

Turkmenistan, my beloved Motherland, my beloved Homeland.

You are always with me, in my thoughts and in my heart.

For the slightest evil against you, let my hand be lost.

For the slightest slander against you, let my tongue be lost.

At the moment of my betrayal to my Motherland, to her sacred banner, to my President, let my breath be stopped.