Ex-Soviet Turkmenistan's strongman leader broke ground on a new and presently nameless city close to the capital Ashgabat Wednesday. Speaking at a groundbreaking ceremony, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said some 70,000 people will populate the new city.
The fact that it has yet to be named is likely to lead to speculation that it will be named after Berdymukhamedov, who oversees a leadership cult that draws frequent comparisons with North Korea. "In three to four years this will be a new city shining (under) the Sun, designed for the happy life of every family and every person. All of this for our beloved people," Berdymukhamedov said.
He demonstratively shovelled three loads of cement onto the foundations as part of the ceremony. The 61-year-old leader announced the likely costly construction plan, defying signs of an economic crisis in the Central Asian country.
"This is a colossal project and will require considerable resources, but our state is economically strong enough to implement the most ambitious plans," Berdymukhamedov said of the emerging building site on "virgin land" 20 kilometres from the capital. "We will never spare resources for the welfare of the people," he added.
Berdymukhamedov did not mention the cost of the project that according to the state Turkmengosproekt institute will include a "Higher International School of Horse Breeding," residential and administrative buildings, museums and sporting infrastructure. Images distributed by Turkmengosproekt indicate the new city will be covered in the same trademark facades that have put Ashgabat into the Guinness Book of Records for its density of white marble.
The city will become the new centre of the president's native Ahal province. Earlier this year, Berdymukhamedov's son became the province's deputy governor. Turkmenistan's authoritarian regime has been accused by international rights groups of diverting energy revenues towards vanity projects of little long-term benefit to the population.
An oil price crunch in 2014 and the cessation of a longstanding gas export relationship with Russia in 2016 were seen as motivating the government to cut back on subsidies that made utilities like water, gas and electricity free of charge. Berdymukhamedov, a former dentist, came to power in 2006 following the death of predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov who transformed himself from a Communist leader into a "Turkmenbashy", or "Father of the Turkmen" after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
In 1993, Niyazov renamed a Caspian port town in the west of the country Turkmenbashy in celebration of that moniker. Neighbouring Kazakhstan recently renamed its capital "Nur-Sultan" in honour of its longtime ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev.
(With inputs from agencies.)