Turkmenistan unveils its first ‘smart’ city, named after the former president

The newly unveiled Arkadag city in Turkmenistan. Photo from the website of the Government of Turkmenistan.

On June 29, Turkmenistan’s president Serdar Berdymukhamedov inaugurated the city of Arkadag, located 30 km away from the capital Ashgabat. The inauguration ceremony took place after the completion of 339 buildings, including residential apartments, government offices, hospitals, sport complexes, schools and kindergartens. All of them were built within the first stage of construction that started in 2019. By the time the second and final stage is completed, the country will have spent USD 5 billion on the city, which will house 73,000 people on 1,000 hectares.

Here is a YouTube video with the festivities organized on the Arkadag inauguration day.

The country’s first would-be “smart” city is named after the former president and father of the current one, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who ruled over Turkmenistan between 2006 and 2022. Berdymukhamedov the elder goes by the title Arkadag, which means patron-protector. Turkmenistan is a dictatorship famous for its large gas reserves, near total isolation, and the cult of personality built by its two previous presidents. The country received its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, from that point until 2006 it was ruled by Saparmurat Niyazov, who is most famous for building a 12-meter-high golden statue of himself. Berdymukhamedov has created his own personality cult during his reign with the latest manifestation being the city of Arkadag.

Here is a YouTube video about the dictatorship regime in Turkmenistan.

The city was unveiled on his 66th birthday. On the inauguration day he was away in Saudi Arabia, performing the hajj, a religious pilgrimage for Muslims. His absence at the ceremony was somewhat odd given the fact that he initiated the city’s construction and personally oversaw all the processes in the last four years as far as inspecting and choosing sporting kits of the local football club.

However, several major objects that extended his cult of personality partially made up for his physical absence. The festivities started at the “Akkhan” horse monument, erected in honor of Berdymukhamedov senior’s favorite Akhal-Teke horse. The president also unveiled the 43-meter-high “Arkadag” monument, a statue of his father on a horse. A similar statue made of bronze and covered in 24 karat gold was built in Ashgabat in 2015. There is also the Health and Rehabilitation Center named after Berdymuhamedov senior, as well as a charity fund, newspaper, TV channel, and football club named Arkadag.

The “Akkhan” monument in Arkadag built in honor of Turkmenistan's forment president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's favorite horse. Photo from the website of the Government of Turkmenistan.

The cult of personality theme is not the main thing going for Arkadag in the official discourse. The authorities have promoted it as the country’s first “smart” city that uses cutting edge information and communication technologies in everyday life. Only electrical buses and cars run in the city, traffic lights regulate the flow of cars depending on how busy roads are, and apartments are equipped with tablets that allow residents to track water, electricity, and heating consumption. The last feature was on display when the president visited one of the apartments and observed a robot vacuum cleaner cleaning carpets in the hallway.

Electric cars in Arkadag. Photo from the website of the Government of Turkmenistan.

Arkadag’s future remains unclear given the government’s authoritarian and bizarre rules for its potential residents. It is reported that only government employees under the age of 35 are allowed to live there for free, under the condition that they will keep their houses if they are not fired in the next ten years. Also, its residents are not allowed to drive personal vehicles in the city; they have to park them outside the city borders and take public transportation instead. The complete top-down approach exercised throughout the planning and building of the city has made its way to the lives of people arriving in Arkadag. If such rules proliferate and persist, Arkadag may remain as empty as it is now.

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