The World Today for February 03, 2022

NEED TO KNOW

The Gates of Hell

TURKMENISTAN

Turkmenistan’s autocratic President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov recently went on state television to demonstrate his awesome power. The leader of the Central Asian former Soviet republic wants to shut the gates of hell.

Given how Turkmen leaders have a history of bizarre ideas – the capital features a massive statue of a supposedly holy book, the Ruhnama, published by the late President Saparmurat Niyazov in 2004 and Berdymukhamedov erected a 68-foot gold statue of himself on a horse as well as a 20-foot gold statue of his dog – one could be forgiven for thinking that Berdymukhamedov was aiming to close a passage to the netherworld.

The truth is more mundane. He wants experts to extinguish a natural gas fire that has been burning in a 229-feet-wide, 65-feet-deep crater called the “Doorway to Hell” since a drilling accident in 1971. “We are losing valuable natural resources for which we could get significant profits and use them for improving the well-being of our people,” Berdymukhamedov said, according to Agence France-Presse.

Canadian explorer George Kourounis was the first person to descend into the Darvaza, which is now a striking tourist attraction on the steppe, reported the Guardian in 2014. Wearing a heat-resistant suit and breathing apparatus, he collected samples to discover whether life could exist in the pit. Describing the crater as a “coliseum of fire,” he likened the experience to traveling to another planet.

It was not clear why Berdymukhamedov has been focusing on the burning crater. Perhaps he wants to eliminate an embarrassing symbol that may detract from the natural gas projects he is currently planning with neighboring countries. As EurasiaNet explained, the president has been working desperately to restart the 1,100-mile TAPI pipeline project, which would carry Turkmen natural gas to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and bring foreign currency to Turkmenistan. He has also been working hard to expand electricity exports, as the Chinese state newswire Xinhua noted.

Pushing for a more stable economy might have become a more urgent concern in the wake of recent protests in neighboring Kazakhstan – another former Soviet republic – that started due to surging fuel prices but reflected widespread discontent over economic and political issues in general, the New York Times wrote. Leaders throughout the region fear those protests could spread. Russia deployed forces to Kazakhstan to prop up the government, a move that comports with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s revanchist, imperial strategies throughout the former Soviet Union, as the British tabloid the Sun described.

In response to unrest in Kazakhstan, Berdymukhamedov increased his control over people’s lives, reported Radio Free Europe. He deployed police in residential neighborhoods, permitted them to randomly check citizens’ phones and imposed an unannounced curfew that began at 9 p.m.

Turkmen should beware. When the gates of hell close, they might be stuck inside.

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