ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan, Sep 17 – Turkmenistan’s image-conscious strongman Gurbanguly Berymukhamedov on Sunday kicked off a 10-day regional sporting event the isolated country is hosting despite a slew of economic and rights concerns.
A record-breaking horse-head sculpture loomed large over a brand new 45,000-seater stadium packed mostly with Turkmen citizens as Berdymukhamedov hailed the opening of the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games as an “historic” event for the Central Asian state and its capital Ashgabat.
While the event involving 41 countries is not as prestigious as other Olympic Council of Asia tournaments, such as the Asian Games that dates back to 1951, Turkmenistan, still reeling from the collapse of global gas prices, has spared little expense hosting it.
At the opening, volunteers clad in green and yellow tracksuits swarmed onto the stage with glow sticks, giving way to Turkmen in sheepskin hats performing traditional songs in the two-and-a-half hour marathon ceremony.
Flashing intermittently on a giant display screen was the games’ cartoon mascot — depicting a local breed of dog — which Berdymukhamedov personally ordered redrawn after taking a strong dislike to an earlier design.
“The main task the president set before us is to open Turkmenistan up to the whole world through sport and our hospitality,” Dayanch Gulgeldiyev, who chaired the games’ organising committee, told AFP ahead of the event.
– Repression and economic woe –
But rights groups have raised concerns the government’s spending splurge has come at a disproportionate cost to ordinary Turkmen citizens who have seen the cost of imports spike and the currency plunge in recent years.
The Olympic village alone cost the state budget some $5 billion, whilst adding the equivalent of 62 football fields of white marble to a city already famous for its lunar-like architecture.
The showpiece Olympic stadium is topped off with another marble-clad construct — a 42.05-metre-tall horse-head sculpture adjudicated by Guinness as the world’s biggest — and an Olympic-style torch powered by gas from the giant Galkynysh gas field.
“We began from nothing and have managed to make the Ashgabat games the biggest of their kind,” Gulgeldiyev told AFP excitedly.
Global watchdog Human Rights Watch has claimed that the infrastructure drive ahead of the games saw homeowners “forcibly evicted” and their homes demolished “without adequate compensation”.
The OCA had “utterly failed the Olympic charter’s ideals” by failing to speak out against government repression, the rights group said on Wednesday.
Among the many restrictions imposed by the state during the period of the games are travel restrictions for Turkmen attempting to leave the country, closures of schools and bans on tobacco and alcohol sales.
“The AIMAG is a medium-scale athletic competition, and shouldn’t be a state of emergency,” said Farid Tuhbatullin, director of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights.
“The Turkmen government has no business imposing such draconian restrictions on its people, not for these games, not ever.”
The government expects 30,000 foreign guests, but at least three major international news wires including AFP had not received accreditation for foreign-based correspondents in time for the opening.
Alexander Cooley, a regional analyst and professor at Columbia University, argues the games are intended mostly to “favourably portray the leadership” of Berdymukhamedov, “who has gone to great lengths to craft an image of himself as an engaged and athletic leader” as he marks over a decade in power.
Nevertheless, what Cooley calls the regime’s “paranoia” surrounding the games, “including its closing of schools and monitoring of the foreign press…might actually backfire and draw more international attention to political repression and endemic corruption.”
Former dentist Berdymukhamedov took office in 2006 shortly after the death of eccentric predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov.
Both men are honoured by golden monuments in the Ashgabat, the products of leadership cults that regularly see Turkmenistan compared to North Korea.