Turkmenistan has spared no expense in its bid to host international sporting events -- spending the equivalent of what it would cost to host the Olympic Games. But for its multibillion-dollar investment, Ashgabat is not getting the Olympics.
Turkmenistan will be unveiling its lavish new "Olympic Complex" this September when it hosts the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG). The international event is nothing to sniff at -- more than 5,000 athletes from 62 countries are expected to arrive to compete in the games from September 17 to September 27, making it Asia's second-largest sporting event -- but the monetary and human investment has led to questions of whether it is worth the effort.
The complex, which is the brainchild of authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, has been a source of controversy since 2010, when economically-challenged Turkmenistan was chosen to host the AIMAG and construction of the president's multibillion-dollar pet project began.
To make room for the massive complex, located on 150 hectares on the outskirts of the capital, some 50,000 Ashgabat residents were forcibly relocated in violation of international law, Amnesty International reported in 2015.
At least 10,000 structures located in a dacha community in the capital's Choganly region were demolished, according to the rights watchdog, and many people who resided there permanently were given only a few days' notice before demolition began and they were left living in "ruins."
The complex features 30 facilities, including a 6,000-seat indoor cycling track that is said to be the largest in the world; a covered track-and-field stadium; a water-sports complex; an indoor tennis court; a multisport arena; multiple hotels -- including one reserved for VIPs; and an "Olympic Stadium" capable of holding 45,000 fans.
A circular 5-kilometer monorail system will shuttle spectators to events at the complex, which will be bathed in white -- the trademark color of Berdymukhammedov's carefully crafted personality cult.
Design and construction was overseen by Polimeks, the Turkish construction company that has carried out a number of the president's high-profile pet projects, including the glitzy Awaza resort city in the country's west, and a $2.3 billion, falcon-shaped airport built in preparation for the 10-day AIMAG event.
Those two projects geared toward boosting tourism are widely seen as white elephants, with the resort reported to be under-occupied and the iconic airport purportedly sinking into the ground.
Around $5 billion was reportedly earmarked for the Olympic complex alone -- on par with the average cost of each Summer Olympic Games held since 1960, according to a study co-authored by Said Business School and the University of Oxford, and three times the amount budgeted by South Korea for hosting the 2014 Asian Games, the continent's largest international sporting event. But for cash-strapped Turkmenistan, critics say, the money could have been better used elsewhere.
Economy In Decline
Hosting the AIMAG, "especially when the country is facing an economic crisis, is really hitting the country hard," says Luca Anceschi, a Central Asia expert at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. But the government has "no concern" for ordinary people, Anceschi adds.
Turkmenistan boasts the world's fourth-largest natural-gas reserves, and its economy is heavily dependent on the gas sector, but has long faced difficulties in expanding its export routes beyond Russia and Iran.
Turkmenistan's economic woes have been compounded in recent years by a global slump in energy prices, reducing growth in gross domestic product (GDP) from 11.1 percent in 2012 to 6.2 percent in 2016, according to the Asian Development Bank.
The decline in GDP led the Council of Elders, a state-backed advisory body, to propose abandoning subsidies on natural gas, electricity, water, and salt in 2014. The government has also ended free gasoline allowances.
Reports from across the country suggest that delayed salaries, a shortage of cash in banks, and food rationing in government stores have become the norm for ordinary Turkmen citizens.
Citizens Cough It Up
It's not only the state that has invested heavily in hosting the AIMAG. Everyday citizens, too, have spent much time and money on the project -- whether they want to or not.
The government is reportedly leaning on its citizens to help foot the bill by donating money to help pay for preparations ahead of the event.
According to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, workers across the country have seen 15 to 20 percent of their monthly wages withheld as so-called voluntary contributions in support of the effort to host the games. Private businesses have also been told to make financial contributions, according to the service.
Such contributions have been partially blamed for rising food prices, adding to the difficulties for ordinary people in a country where criticism of the president or government policies is not tolerated, and where there is no independent media or political opposition.
Ashgabat residents have told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that, in the months leading up to the sporting event, Turkmen police have been rounding up those who could taint the capital's image, such as drug addicts, prostitutes, and homeless people.
Even students are feeling the pressure to present a clean image for the upcoming games. The new school year in Ashgabat will begin two months earlier, on July 1 this year, with a school holiday scheduled for September, a move some Turkmen say is aimed at mobilizing students to take part in mass parades and festivities during the AIMAG event.
Broader Sports Initiative
Turkmen authorities don't make a secret of their dream of establishing their country as a sporting destination.
Berdymukhammedov's government aims to make Ashgabat "one of the sports capitals of the world," the government said shortly after it was chosen to host the AIMAG.
But the country, which has yet to win an Olympic medal in any sport, has a long way to go.
Holding the AIMAG is part of a broader initiative to develop sports and physical education, with an eye on promoting healthier lifestyles.
Berdymukhammedov, who is often depicted by state media engaged in various sporting activities, has said that the government's ultimate goal is to support and promote the sport and Olympic movement, actively involve youth in it, and give citizens access to sport and physical culture from childhood.
Turkmen opposition media outside the country says Ashgabat's AIMAG project is "extremely inappropriate" amid the financial hardship the country faces.
The money could have been invested in other areas, such as grassroots sports as well as the training of Turkmen athletes and coaches, suggests Chronicles of Turkmenistan, the news website of a human rights NGO.
Latest White Elephant?
Besides sports, Turkmenistan also wants to highlight the regime's "international legitimacy," Central Asia expert Anceschi says, comparing the country to neighboring Kazakhstan, which has hosted numerous high-profile international affairs, including the 2011 Asian Winter Games.
Turkmenistan's Tourism Ministry says that 150,000 spectators from across the world are expected to arrive to watch the sporting event in Turkmenistan.
However, Turkmenistan is one of the most difficult countries to get a visa for foreign visitors, who are required to have state-appointed tour guides once allowed into the country. According to tourism ministries' statistics, only 105,000 foreign tourists visited Turkmenistan in 2015.
Despite relatively inexpensive prices, the luxurious five-star hotels in the Awaza resort have failed to reach 50 percent occupancy rates even during peak holiday seasons.
While the event's website says 600,000 tickets will be sold to AIMAG spectators, it advises foreigners not to purchase tickets until they get a Turkmen visa.
PHOTO GALLERY: Ashgabat -- Turkmenistan's 'Marble City'
Ashgabat already boasts more than 500 new marble-clad buildings, touted as the city with the world's highest concentration of buildings made from white marble.
Local residents and rare foreign visitors say most of the white-washed residential buildings and opulent hotels have no inhabitants, state-of-the-art medical facilities don't have visitors, and newly-built roads are void of traffic.
Considering that opposition media has called Turkmenistan's AIMAG venues "single-use" facilities, pointing out that the country has a little chance of hosting major international sports, such as the Olympics, the fear is that the complex will become the country's latest white elephant.
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