Wait, there hasn't been a post in nearly 18 months. And I haven't been in Turkmenistan in over two years. Why this? Why now? I am long gone and I will not be going back. At this point, nearly all the other expats I worked with are no longer in Turkmenistan and I have minimal contact with anyone still there.
I have always pulled my punches with this blog. There was always a reluctance to write too critically about any location I was in, especially when I was in Turkmenistan (though the Turkmen President falling off his horse was too good to not write about). After all, it is essentially North. Korea. Lite. Perhaps I should say "was" since I haven't been there for two years, but my former colleagues have assured me it is as dysfunctional as ever.
Doing a quick check and review of an older post of mine on Turkmenistan's place in various rankings around the world, not much has changed. The country is still pulling in awful marks from essentially everyone:
* Human Rights Watch (Turkmenistan profile link)
* Freedom House (Turkmenistan profile link)
* Reporters Without Borders (Turkmenistan profile link)
* Transparency International (Turkmenistan profile link)
Yep, still not a great place when the only places you beat are Eritrea and the actual North Korea (as per the Reporters Without Borders report).
Turkmenistan's great struggle is not that it is terrible, but that it will continue to be terrible. It sits atop the fourth largest natural gas reserves (direct link to .pdf of the 2015 BP Statistical Review and go to page 20). But all this wealth will not reach the vast majority of the people while it has such a petty and vainglorious leader. Yes, petty enough to insist upon a yacht as a bribe. This was actually semi-openly discussed among expats in at least one of the client offices while I was there. It was never much discussed in front of Turkmen nationals since you could never be certain who actually supported the president as opposed to those who paid lip service to his ego-centrism. And with visas so difficult to come by and deportations so legitimate a threat, the trend was towards discretion around locals.
In the past, I was pulling my punches about the potential of the country. I laid out two main stumbling blocks to developing the country's resources: distribution of wealth and available labor. The labor issue is straightforward enough. People there are not well educated and the nature of the education they receive is very dogmatic and rigid. There are gains, but people will be educated only just enough to perform the work needed, not well enough to create what one might call a creative class. In its current form, the education system there will never lead to an innovative or entrepreneurial society. Additionally, Turkmen nationals need an exit visa to leave the country and get a foreign education. This further restricts which type (and how loyal) of a person is allowed out. As for the distribution of wealth, well, this report sums it up well when it says:
"Twenty percent of the Agency’s revenues go into the State budget. The other 80 percent disappear into the murky, shadow economy that President Berdymukhamedov has built though a legal, but highly unethical, system of law that he created under the noses of western officials, but which has never been analyzed, until now."
With leadership like that, Turkmenistan will never prosper. It will improve in some ways, perhaps many ways, but it will fall deeply short of its potential as long as it is led by such a petty and insecure person.