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 sights.
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 and routes.
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 more acute."
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 adds.
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. "You kind of get a suggestion of where the money is going. Under Niyazov, it didn't seem to be going to the people."
Part of the problem, Mr. Mayne says, is that state spending is nearly impossible to track. His group's April 2006 report on the Turkmen gas trade estimates that up to 75 percent of government revenue is channeled into a series of opaque reserve funds, many of which are controlled directly by the president.
New finds would put Turkmenistan in Top 5
British Petroleum's Statistical Review of World Energy ranks Turkmenistan's gas reserves as 12th largest in the world, according to 2005 estimates of 2.9 trillion cubic meters (t.c.m.). But those numbers don't include the government's recent finds of reserves totaling 7 t.c.m., unconfirmed by industry analysts. The additional finds would put Turkmenistan's gas reserves among the Top 5 in the world.
Although Russia won the latest skirmish in the battle for Turkmenistan's resources, Niyazov's successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, has been careful not to shut the door on the West. After announcing the Russian pipeline deal, the new president said plans for a US-backed pipeline under the Caspian Sea were also feasible.
A close associate of Niyazov, Mr. Berdymukhammedov nonetheless appears ready to reverse some of the worst aspects of Niyazov's rule. He has promised to restore pensions, provide greater Internet access, and reform compulsory education.
But eager as the West may be to see Turkmenistan open up economically, experts warn that the new president's reform initiatives are trivial when compared with the magnitude of the problems sown in the Niyazov era.
"Practically nothing concrete has happened so far," says Farid Tuhbatullin of the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights. Hopes for a transformation, he says, will be dashed if the international community does not "exert the necessary pressure on the new president to take more real, concrete steps."
Ms. Denber of Human Rights Watch agrees.
"Most [international] actors see an opening now for trying to find ways of bringing Turkmen gas to market without relying on Russia." However, Denber adds, "what should be ... on the international community's agenda for Turkmenistan right now is fundamental change and justice for the abuses of the past. I think that's not happening."
But an elderly Ashgabat intellectual, who has seen more than one dictator come and go, recommends patience.
"We Turkmen have a proverb by which I try to live," he says. "Better than wishing your enemy death is to ask Allah to give you long life."