TURKMENBASHI, Turkmenistan — Four white-marble hotels opened here in June on a spit of sand by a landlocked sea — the beginnings of what is billed as Central Asia's answer to Las Vegas, an opulent $5 billion oasis of seaside villas, casinos, an artificial island and a ski center.
The resort-to-be stands out in this arid country the size of California, where camels clop down dirt roads and bedraggled Soviet-era apartment blocks doze in the blistering desert heat. Yet Turkmenistan also sits atop the world's fifth-largest reserves of natural gas, and is rapidly emerging as a key player in global energy markets.
Its secretive, autocratic government is using some of its more than $7 billion in annual gas revenues to build the pleasure park, called Avaza. Officials say they hope to attract high-rolling foreign tourists and open up their country, long sealed off from most of the outside world.
"Coming to our country has always been a problem for foreigners," Murat Kariyev, the country's elections commission chairman, told The Associated Press. He called Avaza "the world's window on Turkmenistan."
The world's biggest consumers of energy want to do more than peek through the window at Turkmenistan — they want to barge through the door. The United States, Europe, China, Russia and Iran are all jostling for greater access to the country's mammoth natural gas fields, which could contain more than 26 trillion cubic yards (20 trillion cubic meters) of natural gas. That's enough to supply Europe with gas for the next 66 years.
Efforts to break reliance on Russia
The European Union and the United States see Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, who took power 2 1/2 years ago, as a potential ally in their efforts to break reliance on Russia for natural gas.
China in turn has moved boldly to challenge Russia, cutting its own energy deal, which includes a $4 billion loan. Beijing plans to begin tapping a major natural gas field in eastern Turkmenistan when a new pipeline is finished as early as this year.
Courted from all sides, sitting on vast wealth, Turkmenistan's regime faces stark choices: to open its doors or live in continued isolation, to push for reform or renew repression.
The Avaza resort on the Caspian Sea symbolizes some of these conflicts. It is designed to appeal to the sophisticated business traveler. Yet during opening ceremonies, the white marble hotels were decorated Soviet-style with gigantic pictures of President Berdymukhamedov, and a huge television screen beamed down a picture of the president's face.
Critics say the resort is just another example of Turkmenistan's propensity for huge and impractical building programs, shown clearly under former president Saparmurat Niyazov, and could wind up a sinkhole for billions of dollars in gas revenues.
The Avaza complex is "fully in keeping with Niyazov's tradition of spending state money on grandiose construction projects," said Annette Bohr, an expert on Turkmenistan at the London-based Chatham House think tank.
Stark contrast with rural life
Most of this country's 4.9 million people live in rural areas. Those who find work are usually farmers, especially in the cotton fields, earning on average the equivalent of just $6,800 a year. By some estimates, as many as 60 percent of Turkmen are unemployed.
Niyazov's figure turns to face the sun during the day, gleaming brightly in the desert sun. At night it is bathed in colored floodlights, visible for miles in every direction.
Most of the capital's citizens, meanwhile, live in dilapidated apartment blocks and ride rattletrap buses. The only hint of extravagance is the dozens of satellite television dishes sprouting from every apartment house wall.
Turkmenistan lies along the great Silk Road that knit ancient Europe and Asia, and came under the empires of Alexander the Great, Ghengis Khan and Tamerlane. In the early 18th century, imperial Russian military forces landed on the Caspian coast not far from Avaza but were later wiped out. Some 152 years later, Russian forces returned to the same spot, and this time marched relentlessly across the deserts and steppes.
In the Soviet era, this ancient land of khan and conqueror became the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1985, the local Communist Party chief was replaced by Niyazov, a former power station engineer. Five years later, as the Soviet Union was breaking up, Niyazov was elected Turkmenistan's first president.
During his long reign, Niyazov ruled absolutely and eccentrically. He outlawed the circus, ballet and opera; closed many rural hospitals and fired thousands of health workers; forbid most religious practices; and shuttered libraries, universities and the Academy of Sciences.
At one point Niyazov renamed himself Turkmenbashi, "Father of All Turkmen," and ordered students and bureaucrats to study his two-volume spiritual tome called "Rukhnama." As gas wealth poured in, he planted statues of himself across the country and invested heavily in magnificent public buildings. He was accused by Global Witness of depositing billions of dollars of state money in foreign bank accounts he personally controlled.
When Niyazov died of heart disease on Dec. 21, 2006, the rubber-stamp People's Council legislature declared former health minister Berdymukhamedov acting president. The speaker of parliament, next in line for the presidency under the constitution, was swiftly arrested and sentenced to five years in jail.
In February 2007 Berdymukhamedov nominally faced five other Democratic Party of Turkmenistan candidates. But elections board chairman Kariyev pledged to "do everything necessary" to see that Berdymukhamedov won.
He did, with almost 90 percent of the vote.
Steps toward opening the country
The new president has opened the country to the Internet, although many political, religious and news Web sites remain blocked. Schoolchildren are now only required to study the Rukhnama an hour a week, rather than an hour a day. The number of years children spend in school has been extended, and foreign languages reintroduced into the curriculum.
The new president has also lifted many of Niyazov's restrictions on study abroad.
"There is no chance for Russian children to get a good education here," said Marina, an ethnic Russian merchant in the town of Turkmenbashi, whose daughter now attends classes in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Berdymukhamedov has reopened provincial hospitals and eliminated many restrictions on travel within Turkmenistan, where motorists traveling between cities once faced a gantlet of checkpoints.
He released 20 political prisoners in 2007, including the country's former chief mufti, imprisoned after he resisted Niyazov's order to display copies of the Rukhnama in every mosque. The Commission on International Religious Freedom cited Turkmenistan for its "systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedoms." Human Rights Watch called Turkmenistan "one of the most repressive countries in the world."
Government officials privately concede the country has a lot of progress to make. But they argue that, despite low wages and high unemployment, the people enjoy a relatively high standard of living, thanks to subsidies, price controls and free or nearly free utilities and gasoline.
Only 'symbolic' changes, some say
Not everyone agrees. "Sure, things have improved, but life is as hard as it ever was," said Murat, who lives in Ashgabat. He declined to give his last name for fear he might be detained or arrested.
Begench Yazlyev, a 37-year-old Turkmen computer engineer who lives in Moscow but often travels to home to Turkmenistan, said the country has not really changed.
"There's been some symbolic changes made," he said. "But everything is the same." There are still huge portraits of the president everywhere, he said, and still widespread poverty.
There is concern the new president may increasingly be following the path of Niyazov. In February of 2008, officials began putting up portraits of Berdymukhamedov on major buildings, at the Ashgabat stadium and in the cabins of Turkmenistan Airlines planes. The government has also started publishing books cobbled together from the speeches and essays of his speeches and essays.
Milestone or boondoggle?
In the meantime, it is still not clear whether the Avaza resort is a milestone along Turkmenistan's road to a more open society or a boondoggle.
A short drive away, in front of a palatial community center named after the late president, stands another gold-leafed statue of Niyazov holding a copy of the Rukhnama. Not far away stands a huge billboard depicting the current president, Berdymukhamedov, larger than life, leading a group of children and behind them the entire Turkmen nation.
He looks disturbingly like what his predecessor Niyazov so proudly declared himself to be: Turkmenbashi, the father of all Turkmen.
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