For all its fabulous wealth, Turkmenistan has stooped once more to asking the Chinese for a staggering $4.1 billion loan to develop the huge and untapped South Yolotan field. Not wanting for a brass neck, President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov ordered his cowering minions to begin negotiations with the China State Development Bank for a loan on preferential terms.

The debt will pile on top of the $4 billion, of which $3 billion is also for developing South Yolotan, China has lent Turkmenistan last year. But why does a country supposedly awash with gas money and whose outlays on the provision of social services are seemingly risible suddenly need all this cash? Will China puts its hands in its pockets and where is the money likely to end up?

Turkmenistan is unwilling to embrace the more unmanageable aspects of modernity like an open society or the even vaguely comprehensive provision of healthcare, but it is striving nonetheless to convey the notion that it is speeding ahead towards the ranks of developed nations. Accordingly, state television and newspapers are little more than a wall-to-wall eulogy to the wisdom of Turkmenistan’s leader, the greatness of the country’s textile industry, the wonderfulness of its schools, the sterling dynamism of its army, the modernity of its confectionery factories, and so on and so forth. The most visible, and expensive, aspect of this tireless striving to some indefinable historical apotheosis has manifested itself in a gargantuan construction boom in the weird capital city, Ashgabat, and the utterly potty Caspian resort town of Awaza.

The numbers speak for themselves. Lording over his terrified browbeaten Cabinet, perennially smug-looking Berdymukhamedov announced in January that no less than $23.6 billion will be spent on hundreds of new buildings over the coming two years. Laughably, he suggested that some of this money would wash in courtesy of foreign investors. The only foreigner that would dream of parting with cash for Turkmen real estate, probably in Awaza, would do so exclusively in the hope it might put them in good stead when bidding for some government tender. Heaven only knows what proportion of the country’s economy that eats up, although with an official real gross domestic product of around $16 billion in 2009, it is safe to say that Turkmenistan may be spending a little beyond its means on things that it probably doesn’t really need. Plus ca change.

The bulk of construction work in Ashgabat appears to be focused on residential apartments, although no Turkmen building boom would be complete without a fair share of waste. As usual, dictator-serving French construction titan Bouygues has cornered the market for official buildings with its orders for a new Oil and Gas Institute, Makhtumkuli University, the Sport and Tourism Institute and extra premises for the oh-so-busy parliament.

Presumably, Ashgabat thinks that $4 billion here or there will come out in the wash, and that it can always offset the debt against future sales of gas. Because, of course, by the time the pipeline to China is pumping 40 billion cubic meters of gas annually, the country’s economy will be fully diversified, what with German teenagers clamoring for Turkmen-made jeans, Turkish children nibbling on Ashgabat choccies and German tourists hogging the sun-beds along the Caspian coastline. At least this is the hazy vision that appears to Berdymukhamedov in his sleep, amid dreams of grateful subjects willfully prostrating themselves at his diminutive frame as his pudgy face beams contentedly. Chinese economic policy is made of somewhat more reality-bound stuff, and they will likely part with requested cash as much of it will end up in their own pockets anyhow.

In December, the Turkmen state media announced that the government had awarded $9.7 billion to several foreign companies to develop South Yolotan. Among those companies was CNPC Chuanqing Drilling Engineering Company, which won a $3.13 billion deal to produce 10 billion cubic metres of gas annually. That is to say, please lend us $4 billion, so we can pay a company you own $3 billion to do work in our own country.

On the face of it, none of this necessarily makes bad economic sense, but being that it is Turkmenistan we are dealing with here, much room must be reserved for pessimism and cynicism.

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