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Tyrant Games: How Turkmenistan is using the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Art Games to distract from human rights abuses

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Karim Zidan looks at the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Art Games and how Turkmenistan is using the prestigious event to distract from human rights abuses within the country. 

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Turkmen President Berdymukhammedov Meets South Korean President Park Photo by Kim Hong-Ji-Pool/Getty Images

For the first time in the history of pan-continental multi-sports events, all eyes are on Turkmenistan.

A total of 65 delegations will compete in 21 sports at the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Art Games (AIMAG). Approximately 6000 athletes and officials will participate and over 300 gold medals will be awarded. The event – held in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital city – commenced on September 17 and will extend through September 27. The entire event takes place in the Ashgabat Olympic Complex, an unprecedented facility in Central Asia that boasts over 30 venues, a medical center, and an Athletes’ Village equipped with restaurants, hotels, and shopping malls.

Yet while the AIMAG provides a unique opportunity for a Central Asian nation to promote itself internationally by hosting a prestigious multi-sport event, Turkmenistan has been bombarded with negative publicity, including Human Rights Watch reports of increased repression and a troubling increase in human rights abuse. Thousands of homes were demolished as the Turkmen government re-sculpted the capital city and zoned off regions to limit its citizens from interacting with foreign visitors.

Viewed as an opportunity for isolated Turkmenistan to “reveal itself to the whole world,” the AIMAG has achieved that goal, though the reveal is not limited to lavish stadiums and artistic opening ceremonies.

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Ironically, the revelations sought by Turkmen officials actually laid the foundation for international scrutiny.

Turkmenistan’s History of Repression

On February 13, 2017, Turkmenistan’s incumbent president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, won 97.69 per cent of the vote for (another) term at the country’s helm. This marked the third time that the 60-year-old president was re-elected for the presidential role.

Berdimuhamedov’s landslide victory highlights the plight of political life in the Central Asian nation. Berdimuhamedov’s re-election came on the heels of a 2016 constitutional amendment that eliminated the age limit for candidates (70) and extended the presidency term from five to seven years. The president faced no criticism or meaningful opposition from the eight other candidates who campaigned for the presidency. They feared their leader’s wrath in a country where freedom of expression is a fantastical aspiration, and dissent is met with forced disappearances, exile, and other forms of repression.

Since his rise to presidency in 2007, Berdimuhamedov has progressively gained more control of Turkmenistan. The shift in Turkmen society was a gradual one, as Berdimuhamedov was initially viewed as a moderate leader and an improvement upon his predecessor, Niyazov, an eccentric leader who had previously proclaimed himself president for life before passing away suddenly. Berdimuhamedov promised reforms in the country’s health care, pension, and education systems, and even curbed the personality cult of his statue-loving predecessor. However, even though Berdimuhamedov's government appeared be an improvement from Niyazov’s dictatorship, over the span of a single decade, it quickly deteriorated to one of the most repressive regimes in the entire world.

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After initially campaigning as a reformist in 2007, the Berdimuhamedov of 2017 now maintains a vice-grip on all socio-economic and political aspects in his country, including both government administration and public life. The cost of living in Turkmenistan has increased dramatically during Berdimuhamedov’s reign and subsidies protecting commodities like bread have been reduced significantly. Alternative expression, whether religious or political, is strictly forbidden.

The deterioration of free expression also applies to press freedom, which is non-existent in Turkmenistan. In 2017, Reporters without Borders ranked Turkmenistan at 178 out of 180 nations in their Press Freedom Index. The only two countries with worse overall scores were Eritrea (179) and North Korea (180).

Over the past few years, Berdimuhamedov has propagated a dictatorial cult of personality that has helped him cement his authority in Turkmenistan. In 2013, he paid superstar Jennifer Lopez to perform for a crowd of politicians at a lavish concert celebrating his 56th birthday. The president’s decision to host Lopez came two years after Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov invited two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, Seal, and Jean Claude Van Damme to attend his 35th birthday party.

Since 2013, Berdimuhamedov’s personality cult has become the driving force of his propaganda machine. In 2015, a statue of the president riding a golden horse atop a marble cliff was erected in Ashgabat. He later began to release videos of himself serenading his country with a guitar, lifting weights in the gym, and DJing electronic music.

Most recently, state media broadcasted footage of Berdimuhamedov dressed in military gear and firing at targets with various weapons. Naturally, all his shots landed with pin-point accuracy.

“Picking up one of the weapons presented to him, the head of state demonstrated the precision of his aim, which served as evidence of his high level of military preparedness,” the state news agency said, according to independent local media (h/t The Guardian). “After that, the president demonstrated his mastery of target-shooting with a pistol, then demonstrated his skills in the artful handling of knives by precisely casting daggers at a distant target.”

While the president was eventually mocked when a video of the military footage was edited to include clips from the 1985 film Commando, Berdimuhamedov’s influence over Turkmenistan is anything but good humoured. His latest attempt to enhance his image – a multi-billion-dollar investment in Olympic sports – comes at the expense of his own people.

The Cost of Olympic Prestige

Historically, the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games were seen as a mid-tier offshoot of the Asian Games. While the event is owned by the Olympic Council of Asia, it was a relatively low-key event that garnered minimal attention from international media. However, given the billions of dollars infused into the 2017 edition of the event, the AIMAG has proven to be no less than a vanity project for Turkmenistan’s authoritarian regime.

According to reports, the Turkmen government has spent approximately $5 billion on developing an Olympic village, and $2.3 billion on a new international airport. While Turkmenistan is rich is natural gas resources, it is in the midst of an economic downturn and the government is struggling to cover the expenses. Russia and Iran are no longer purchasing gas from Turkmenistan, and China has only bought half the gas they originally planned to buy. With nowhere else to turn, reports revealed that Turkmen authorities have been taking so-called “voluntary donations” from their citizens.

For months, the Turkmen government has been withholding portions of its citizens’ pay checks to be used “in connection to the Games.” Azatlyk correspondents stated that as much as 50 percent was being withheld from teachers and medical workers’ wages - all to help the government fund a 10-day event.

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The cost on Turkmen citizens has not been limited to voluntary donations. Amnesty International has found that more than 50,000 citizens were evicted from their homes near the capital city. Many were unfairly compensated, while others were intimidated out of their properties. One area suffered as many as 10,000 demolished houses in preparation for the AIMAG.

“Instead of using the Games as an opportunity to clean up Turkmenistan’s human rights record, local authorities there have only succeeded in worsening living conditions for residents, many of whom had moved to Ashgabat from the countryside in search of work or had already been evicted elsewhere,” said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Programme Director for Europe and Central Asia.

Local Turkmen citizens have also been zoned off from the foreigners currently flooding the country. Turkmenistan, which is suspicious of foreigners, has put significant limitations on where the arriving guests can visit.

For the most part, Turkmenistan is using a blueprint already formulated by other regimes that hosted international events such as the World Cup and the Olympic Games. Brazil, Russia, and Qatar have come under scrutiny in recent years for issues ranging from the deaths of migrant workers in slave labor conditions to stray dogs being rounded up and slaughtered. Yet despite the proof that prestigious sports events do not lead to an economic or diplomatic upswing, Berdimuhamedov envisions his country as an eventual sports power, no matter the price.

While the Asian Indoor and Martial Art Games will last all of 10 days, Turkmenistan’s citizens will suffer its consequences for years to come.