ASHGABAT – In an extraordinary construction boom, the isolated Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan is spending billions of dollars on remodeling its capital, Ashgabat, into a gleaming white showpiece where even the curbs are made of marble.
The gas-rich desert country says that the massive spending spree has already seen $8 billion in international investment and 4 trillion manat ($1.9 billion) of its own funds poured in since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
“We are directing the profit from gas exports into improving the quality of life of our people,” President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov said.
Turkmenistan, on the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea, claims to have the world’s fourth-biggest supplies of natural gas, with estimated reserves of more than 24 trillion cu. meters, according to oil giant BP.
With a population of 1 million, the city is now a giant construction site as the government demolishes large areas of low-rise Soviet-era brick buildings.
All new buildings for ministries, government agencies and also new apartment blocks are being faced with marble, giving the city the nickname “White City.”
The 55-year-old president, a dentist by profession, has even ordered that the concrete curbs on central avenues and streets be replaced with marble ones.
“In this epoch of magnificence and happiness, our respected president has given us the task of developing the city to create the most comfortable conditions for people’s life,” boasted the city’s chief architect, Bairam Shamuradov.
The gleaming facades contrast with the rights record of a country described as “one of the world’s most repressive” by Human Rights Watch.
Berdymukhamedov picked up the gauntlet from his late predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who unveiled a revolving gold statue of himself.
Elected after Niyazov’s 2006 death, Berdymukhamedov last year opened a covered Ferris wheel that towers to a height of 95 meters atop a leisure center.
In 2011, he unveiled a 185-meter-high monument to the nation’s constitution that cost $60 million. Decorated with carpet motifs, the towering effort has been heralded as the local answer to the Eiffel Tower.
He also opened a giant Palace of Happiness for wedding ceremonies that cost around $140 million. It rises out of a building in the shape of an eight-pointed star with a globe in the middle, winning a bizarre Guinness record for the world’s largest star-shaped structure.
The city also gained a 211-meter television tower that cost nearly $184 million.
The vast projects are being built by international companies, and the dominant firm is Turkey’s Polimeks, which built the constitution monument, the Palace of Happiness and the television tower.
Now it has won a $1.97 billion contract to build a complex to hold the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in 2017. The company has also been tapped to build a new Ashgabat airport for a cool $2.25 billion.
French company Bouygues has constructed more than 50 buildings, including the ministry of oil and gas building — nicknamed the “cigarette lighter” — while another French company, Vinci, has won a major contract to build a new house of Parliament, the cost of which has not been made public.
“The Turkmenistan economy is stable despite the global crisis. When you get a sense of the construction marathon, you feel sure of this,” an employee at one of the foreign construction firms said on condition of anonymity.
“All of us will have enough work here for many, many years,” he added.
“Not all former Soviet republics are as lucky, but the ones that God gave oil and gas are now rich and are spending huge money on development and construction,” a Western diplomatic source said on condition of anonymity.
Many residents are dazzled by the whirlwind of construction.
“I can’t keep up with the constant changes in the city,” said 24-year-old student Ashir Nurliyev. “It seems that where there was a wasteland yesterday, today there is a modern building.”
However, not all residents are so keen on the gleaming new amenities.
“Everything has changed so much, it’s as if I’ve come to a strange city,” said Maya Kurbanova, 43, who grew up in Ashgabat and was visiting from Russia.
“In my opinion, when everything is covered with marble, it makes the city look impersonal, but it bowls over the out-of-towners. . . . Everywhere is opulence and luxury.”
One 70-year-old pensioner living in a dilapidated private house complained of the city’s lost “spirit.”
“It’s a pity when the former one- or two-story districts disappear and with them the old spirit of the city, when all the neighbors knew each other, dropped in to visit at the drop of a hat, and there weren’t even any locks on the doors,” the pensioner said.
Human Rights Watch wrote to the president in 2011 over reports of human rights abuses in the course of the demolition work, claiming that owners were being unlawfully evicted and not given adequate compensation.