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In May 2020 when the COVID-19 epidemic was only just starting, Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov ordered the scaling back of construction projects. There’s no question that this was a rational decision: the authorities in Turkmenistan have long been criticized for spending state funds on one ambitious construction project after another. Turkmen.news learnt that one construction company alone, Bouygues, has pocketed more than $1.3 billion from the state budget, and this is probably some way off the final total.
At a government meeting on May 8, Berdimuhamedov acknowledged that the COVID-19 epidemic had created a crisis in the global economy, though not the national economy (according to the authorities coronavirus has allegedly still not penetrated Turkmenistan).
“As in previous crises, while the economy is stably developing, monetary policy is experiencing a lack of money to satisfy needs,” the Turkmenistan state news agency quoted the president as saying. “The Turkmen leader instructed all the deputy prime ministers to draft proposals to reduce expenditure in the state budget, and to review all construction programs other than those with a social purpose,” the news agency report said.
At one of the last meetings of 2020 Berdimuhamedov announced that “2,500 projects are being built for an overall sum of $37 billion,” including residential buildings, transport infrastructure and 45 “constructions of state significance.”
For a long time official sources have not published detailed cost breakdowns for construction projects lest they annoy the public who are forced to stand in line to buy subsidized groceries (the majority of citizens cannot afford to buy food in the commercial shops). However, documents in turkmen.news’ possession show that in 2020 the French construction company Bouygues alone carried out the following construction projects under contract in Turkmenistan:
So, this year alone Bouygues has received at least $1.37 billion from the state budget. Only the bank buildings can at a stretch be considered “socially significant” projects.
It should be mentioned that the previous Senagat Bank building was demolished before the start of construction of the new Senagat and Turkmenbashi bank offices on Chandybil in 2018. It was only around 20 years old and there had been no reports that it was in an unsafe condition — unlike the school in the Mir-7 residential district of Ashgabat where cracks appeared just three years after commissioning. Rather than knock the school down, though, lessons are continuing there.
According to official reports, the new office of Senagat Bank should have opened in September 2019. The schedule was disrupted, however, and sources told turkmen.news the opening had been put back to September 2020. State media have yet to report the completion of construction though (and they always report such events).
Another company, Turkey’s Ronesans, completed a contract in 2020 to construct the second phase of the Nusay Hotel. According to the documents received by turkmen.news, the contract is worth $73.8 million. The cycling monument in Ashgabat, which had its ceremonial unveiling in summer 2020, cost the budget $6.5 million.
Meanwhile, construction is continuing of a whole new town which will be the capital of Ahal region. Turkmenportal reported in 2020 that the town will have 400 detached houses and apartment buildings, nine kindergartens, 19 schools, medical facilities, and an International Higher Equestrian School with a racetrack, training areas, rings, and stables. The town is designed for 70,000 inhabitants. Construction is to be completed in 2022.
According to turkmen.news sources at the Central Bank, construction of the new town will cost the country’s budget almost $1.5 billion. Construction of the new Ahal regional center began in spring 2019 — a couple of months before the president’s son, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, who had already held several official positions, was appointed governor of the region. However, he wasn’t to head the ambitious construction project for long: in February 2020 Serdar was moved to the position of minister of industry and construction. Though as part of his latter responsibilities he will still be involved in the “construction of the century.”
An even bigger project is the construction of the Ashgabat – Turkmenabat expressway, which began in 2019. A sum of $2.3 billion has been allocated from the budget, and one of the companies involved is led by Berdimuhamedov’s brother-in-law Annanazar Rejepov. Despite the tough economic situation this project was not mothballed in 2020.
The conclusion can be drawn that Berdimuhamedov’s May speech, unusual for Turkmen officialdom, had little influence on the authorities’ actions in practice. Some economies are being made: the editorial offices of several state publications have been merged, and the print run of the press has been severely curtailed. Independent media learnt of large-scale reductions in staff in the law-enforcement structures. But we cannot talk of systematic, rational work in this regard, of abandoning construction of grandstands and monuments in favor of social projects, such as supporting small businesses affected by quarantine restrictions or people who have lost their jobs.
Moreover, the idea of economizing has not been widely developed in propaganda. State media continue to insist that this is the Epoch of Might and Happiness in Turkmenistan. “Through the efforts of hundreds of thousands of Turkmen our country has advanced surely and dynamically, gradually transforming into one of the most powerful economies of the Central Asian region. I think this status is the result of the direct implementation of the policy of respected President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov,” says an article with the byline of Mejlis deputy Guljahan Charykulieva, published in the government newspaper Neytralnyy Turkmenistan on January 4.