Turkmenistan's capital city Ashgabat.

© 2015 Bjørn Christian Tørrissen (Wikimedia Commons)

“Everyone’s waiting for the games to end, and they haven’t even started,” an acquaintance in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, told me recently, echoing what several others had said. The “games” are the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG), an indoor competition in 21 sporting events, that will start on Sunday. They are lesser known, and smaller than the Asian Games, the major regional sporting event. But the Turkmen government has been in fervid overdrive preparing for the event, as though it were a full-fledged national emergency

Turkmenistan, a natural gas-rich former Soviet republic, has one of the most repressive governments in the world. Infamous for isolating its people from the outside world, stifling independent media and restricting access to its territory, the government suddenly finds itself having to cope with opening the country’s borders to 4,000 athletes, and unknown numbers of fans and media.

Already it has threatened one of country’s few independent reporters. Activists known for speaking out have been warned to keep their mouths shut. Foreigners must hire “minders” to move around beyond the area of the games. Residents have been restricted from traveling abroad and within the country for the past month. The authorities even closed schools and universities in Ashgabat for the duration of the games, and are forcing some public servants, including teachers and students, to attend the event.

Why? The government has a lot to hide: ruthless persecution and imprisonment of its critics, forced disappearance of at least 110 people in the country’s prison system, grotesque corruption, and the illegal expropriation of homeowners whose houses were demolished without adequate compensation to make room for the “white marble city” that it hopes will impress visitors.

It may seem counterintuitive that an autocracy so bent on isolating its people would host an international sports competition that would oblige it to open the country’s doors to so many. But we shouldn’t underestimate an autocracy’s vanity, and the recognition it thinks it can gain from hosting even a mid-level sporting event like AIMAG.

Meanwhile, the cost has become crippling. The nearly US$8 billion price tag might have seemed manageable when Turkmenistan bid to host the games. But since then the price for natural gas – the sole pillar of Turkmenistan’s economy – has collapsed and the country is in a dire economic crisis. My Turkmen friends may be relieved when the games finally end, but they know they will be bearing the cost for years to come.