Turkmenistan’s eccentric and autocratic president appears to have fallen out of love with his €60m superyacht, sinking the country’s plans for a Caspian Monaco.
When the superyacht Galkynysh swept into the run-down Caspian port of Turkmenbashi two-and-a-half years ago, it was front page news in the state newspaper.
President Berdimukhamedov was pictured in a blue-and-white striped Breton smock and a navy blue sailing cap, clutching a pair of binoculars. An editorial imagined annual sailing regattas taking place at Avaza, the bizarre high-rise resort into which the former Soviet country is pumping billions of dollars of gas revenues.
Foreign construction companies leapt to capitalise on the new enthusiasm. Turkey’s Polimeks, which has built a business fulfilling the architectural whims of Turkmen presidents, pledged to build a yacht club.
Its French rival Bouygues bolted a marina onto a proposed five star hotel. Belda, another Turkish company, did the same. But two-and-a-half years later, yachting has fallen from favour. Berdimukhamedov rarely takes the boat out, and then only for coast-hugging journeys 12km to his beach dacha.
“He never goes out into the open sea, he just potters around between here and Avaza,” said an old woman living above the harbour. The boat’s original skipper was laid off last month, putting to waste the two months of training he received at the home of luxury yacht-builder Benetti.
Top officials at the Turkmenbashi port authority last week denied that Galkynysh had even been intended for cruising. “If you are talking about the president’s yacht, we don’t consider it as a yacht,” one said in his harbour office. “It’s just a place where ministers and official people can come to hold meetings.”
The personality cult surrounding President Berdimukhamedov is nowhere near as extreme as that of his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who built a giant golden rotating statue to himself. But his word is law and this a good guide to the boat’s changing fortunes.
According to a diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, President Berdimukhamedov already had second thoughts about the boat – a gift from a Russian gas company – when it was delivered in October 2008. “The president had originally wanted a larger yacht similar to one owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, but that yacht would not fit through the canals leading to the Caspian Sea,” a US diplomat reported.
This was asking a lot. Galkynysh, at 59 metres, ranked just over 50 in the list of the world’s biggest yachts when it was built in 2007. Today the patch of earth that Polimeks has ringed off for its $25m (€17.4m) yacht club remains untouched, and the company won’t say when it will start.
But their disappointment is matched by the relief of the Caspian port’s long-suffering people: whenever the president decides to pay a visit, they are barred completely from the streets.