Turkmenistan’s all-powerful leader promises that, one day soon, he will build a Las Vegas on the windswept shores of the Caspian Sea.
Illuminated by distant gas flares, thousands of construction workers toil through the night to build the next stage of Avaza: a fantasy resort built on the reclusive Central Asian nation’s fabulous energy riches.
Seven colossal, marble-fronted hotels ordered by Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov line the coast. At least another 23 are planned in a project that some say could divert up to US$5 billion from Turkmenistan’s state coffers.
However, state publicity and lavish spending cannot hide the fact that Turkmenistan is one of the world’s most authoritarian and secretive nations, where Berdymukhamedov’s word is final and opposition among the 5.4 million population is non-existent.
Avaza is an alien world to the 70,000 residents of Turkmenbashi, an oil-refining port 20 minutes’ drive away now bypassed by a motorway that shuttles curious visitors and officials from the region’s airport.
In Turkmenbashi, shoppers in the meat section of a local grocery store are offered bones from a plastic crate or sausages covered in flies. The air is thick with sulfur from the oil refinery.
It’s enough to make some residents long for Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s first post-Soviet leader, who ruled with a bizarre personality cult and renamed the city to reflect his own self-awarded title: Turkmenbashi, or Leader of All Turkmens.
“Under Niyazov, we lived in paradise, but we didn’t realize it,” said Vlad, a 22-year-old resident who scrapes a living driving rare visitors around Turkmenbashi in his old Opel car.
Revealing only the short form of his first name, Vlad was one of the few residents of Turkmenbashi willing to be quoted. Others, fearing recrimination, would not reveal their names.
“In the good old days, I could fill my car for just a dollar. Now gas prices have jumped sevenfold,” he said. “Why has it all become so costly? I don’t know. We are never told.”
Turkmenistan’s gas export revenues are fueling breakneck economic growth. The IMF predicts GDP will expand by 9 percent this year.
Turkmenistan itself is planning 14 percent growth this year. The long-term outlook for economic output is also strong, as it plans to triple natural gas output over the next two decades by drawing on the world’s fourth-largest reserves.
Official literature describes Avaza as “a synonym for our unprecedented reforms.”
The planned tourist zone will cover an area of 5,000 hectares and Berdymukhamedov has said: “In the third stage of the project, a Turkmen ‘Las Vegas’ will appear here, with numerous casinos and other entertainment centers.”
A fountain gushing from the Caspian will evoke images of Geneva’s Jet d’Eau, while a 7km canal filled with yachts is designed to bring to mind Venice or Amsterdam.
A huge portrait of the president in parade uniform greets guests at the largest hotel in the complex, the Watanchy, or “Patriot.” It was built by the Ministry of Defense. Berdymukhamedov has ordered banks and other ministries to build their own hotels to match.
However, foreign visitors, who pay up to US$300 for a night at the Watanchy, must overcome bureaucratic hurdles to secure a visa and encounter hotel staff often baffled by words such as Internet and Wi-Fi or requests to send an e-mail.