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For Turkmenistan, Looking Good Is Everything

An artist's impression of the Karakum Hotel, a $350 million construction project that is planned for the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat.
An artist's impression of the Karakum Hotel, a $350 million construction project that is planned for the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat.

Since independence arrived in 1991, Turkmenistan’s presidents have ordered huge sums to be spent on construction projects of seemingly little use to the general public.

But that money has generally come from revenues from natural gas exports.

Income from gas sales has fallen precipitously in recent years, and President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and his government have taken to putting the squeeze on citizens for funds, potentially making the new projects all the more obscene in the eyes of critics.

Berdymukhammedov wants to build a new hotel in Ashgabat at an estimated cost of $350 million.

In fact, according to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, the French company Bouygues has already been contracted to build the new Karakum Hotel, named for the vast desert that covers much of Turkmenistan.

Bouygues has been working in Turkmenistan since 1994, and during that time has built the presidential palace, the parliament building, and other structures seen in this promotional video, which also gives an idea of how the Turkmen government has been spending the country’s money.

According to the plan, the Karakum Hotel will occupy an area of nearly seven square hectares of land, be nine stories tall, and have 90 rooms. However, its main purpose seems to be for holding public events as the hotel complex will also have a trade center, restaurants, conference halls, and business offices.

And another hotel is planned for the hills outside Ashgabat, so the total cost of the two structures is estimated at more than $500 million.

Construction Fascination

The fascination with construction, especially of hotels, is interesting since very few tourists visit Turkmenistan. Several new hotels were just built in Ashgabat for the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games that Turkmenistan hosted in September 2017, part of the at-least-$8 billion the Turkmen government spent on preparations for the hosting that event.

But Berdymukhammedov likes white marble structures, and even though the country is experiencing its worst economic crisis in 25 years, ensuring that Turkmenistan looks constantly new and attractive appears to be overriding concerns about improving general living standards for the population.

For example, the same day that Azatlyk reported about the new hotels, it also reported about the meager business at bazaars in Ashgabat. There was some food available, but the prices kept customers away even though the cost of fruits and vegetables at bazaars was far lower than at state, or especially private, stores.

One vendor at an Ashgabat bazaar lamented to an Azatlyk correspondent that business was so bad that merchants took to rotating their shifts -- so someone selling apples would team up with someone selling cabbage and only one of them would show up on a given day to sell both items.

"There are days when we don't even earn 10 manats," one vendor said, or about the equivalent of $3. "For every three stalls, there is one with someone selling [something]."

Shortages Of Basic Goods

One customer who did show up to buy goods told Azatlyk that the bazaars looked as vacant as they usually are "when authorities are conducting sanitary controls and they close the bazaars to customers."

People in Turkmenistan have told Azatlyk that there are shortages of basic goods including flour, eggs, and sugar. It is the second straight year of such shortages in a country where there had rarely, if ever, been serious shortages of goods before.

Despite that, Berdymukhammedov seems set on building these new hotels where the occupancy is unlikely to ever exceed 30 or 40 percent.

But what could $500 million buy if it were spent on Turkmenistan's citizens directly, rather than on the hotels?

Let’s say food is the priority.

Turkmenistan’s population is some 5 million, so that would be $100 per person.

Using the official exchange rate of 3.5 manats to the U.S. dollar (the black-market rate is around 10 manats to the dollar) and using the highest prices quoted to Azatlyk by people in Turkmenistan, 350 manats could buy each man, woman, and child all of the following:

10 kilograms of potatoes
Four kilograms of flour
Four kilograms of sugar
Two kilograms of pasta
Two kilograms of lamb
Two kilograms of beef
Two kilograms of chicken
30 eggs
Four liters of cooking oil
Two kilograms of apples
One kilogram of oranges
One kilogram of onions

That's about enough to last everyone in Turkmenistan until March 21, when winter officially ends.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service contributed to this report
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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