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Wednesday, 19 June, 2002, 23:15 GMT 00:15 UK
Turkmenistan's gilded poverty
President Saparmurat Niyazov's palace rises in downtown Ashgabat
Ashgabat: Grand architecture but impoverished people

The economic woes facing the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan haven't deterred the country's President for life, Saparmurat Nyazov, from undertaking a costly transformation of the capital.

Golden statue of President Niyazov. Picture Rory Mulholland
Images of President Niyazov dominate the city
Ashgabat's many central districts have been razed to make way for lavish palaces, huge fountains and stately thoroughfares.

One of the most striking new monuments is visible even from the city's international airport.

A gold statue of President Nyazov - his arms raised aloft - stand on a high column supported by three huge legs. The statue itself revolves through 360 degrees every 24 hours.

Making his mark

Indeed, Mr Nyazov's presence looms large over the entire city - the central boulevard and the airport are both named after him, his portrait hangs from many buildings and uniformed guards stand to attention beside his statues.

The president's taste for the regal is evident in the huge golden dome that embellishes his new palace. Statues of his father and mother are also given prominence.

Old house knocked down in Ashgabat
Old houses are being torn down for new projects

While other Asian capitals have opted for modern skyscrapers, Ashgabat is being endowed with the classical architecture of another era.

The overall result is certainly breath-taking - and hardly in keeping with the economic difficulties Turkmenistan has experienced since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

During the years that followed, health, education and other public services provided by Moscow declined sharply. Many Turkmen citizens saw a steep decline in their living standards.

Daily struggle

Today, the average monthly income is little more than $50. People get by thanks to generous government subsidies for housing, fuel, and basic foods.

The last few years have seen a steady growth in the country's income from its huge oil and gas reserves. No one knows the true cost of the numerous beautification schemes for the capital, but it is clear that they have swallowed up a sizeable proportion of this money.

Established by the Russians as a military outpost in the late 1800s, Ashgabad's first real brush with history came in 1948, when much of the city was destroyed in a powerful earthquake. President Nyazov's mother and two brothers were among the thousands who died in the disaster.

The city was rebuilt in Soviet times, but today many of these older homes, along with the modest apartment blocks erected during the 1950s and 60s, are being torn down to make way for grandiose new projects.

Many of the families forced to leave their homes in this way are not offered compensation or alternative accommodation because they cannot prove their title to their original dwellings.

Hollow gains

Meanwhile, most of the glitzy high-rise apartment blocks that replaced them stand empty, largely because few residents can afford them.

However, few local people are willing openly to criticise Ashgabat's extravagant makeover. Many seem genuinely impressed, not least by the many statues and monuments celebrating the heroes of Turkmenistan's past.

"I saw (the changes in Ashgabat) on television and decided to come see for myself," said Zuleiha, a visitor from the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi.

"There's nothing wrong with spending money on these buildings - it's our history and it'll be here for a very long time to come."

'Stalin in Vegas'

The handful of foreign visitors who come to Ashgabat seem impressed as well.

"It was a complete surprise - one cannot help but be overwhelmed by the splendour of some of the buildings, and the whole aspect of the city," said Rosthema Caston, a tourist from the United States.

Another American tourist on the some tour had a more pointed observation.

"Here we are, slightly beyond the end of the world, we look around and see Stalin in Las Vegas," said Bill Hartwell. "A very bizarre place."

See also:

29 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
19 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
11 Jan 02 | Country profiles
26 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
25 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
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