A hermit nation ruled by an egomaniac: Is Turkmenistan on the brink of collapse?

A screen shot from the Caspian Economic Forum promotional material portrays a gallant picture of the nation, which researchers say is on the brink of economic collapse.

(CNN)Men in white fur caps proudly ride horses across the steppe, rows of modern machinery glisten, Barbie-pink flamingos strut before clear blue skies and a white yacht cuts through the turquoise waters of the Caspian Sea.

These are idyllic scenes from a one-minute video promoting the inaugural Caspian Economic Forum, which between August 11 and 12 will see heads of state from Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan descend on Awaza, a new resort town that has been touted by Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry as the country's Las Vegas.
    The footage paints the picture of a happy, prosperous nation.
      But the reality for the 5.85 million people who live in this authoritarian hermit nation is different.
      Strict media controls mean that information trickles out of the country, but human rights abuses are commonplace, activists often disappear, and forced labor is a concern, according to Human Rights Watch.
      As a hermit nation, it rivals North Korea. Just over 6,000 people visited Turkmenistan in 2016, according to local media reports. Entry visas are notoriously hard to obtain. Awaza lies empty most of the year.
      For years, Turkmenistan has been able to survive on its vast gas reserves. But with the collapse of gas prices in recent years, the screws are tightening -- a recent report by British think tank, The Foreign Policy Centre, suggests the Central Asian nation is now on the brink of collapse.
      "There is not enough food in the state-run shops so every morning people have to line up for hours to buy such staples as flour, bread or sugar," says Ruslan Myatiev, who runs independent news site Turkmen.news from the Netherlands, and gets his information from a network of local informants.
      Adding to the economic woes, the country's despotic leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has been conspicuously absent since mid-July, appearing just three times on state media, which once reported almost daily on the President's activities.
      As the Caspian Economic Forum kicks off this week, critics will be wondering whether Turkmenistan's leader will appear in person, just as the country faces unprecedented headwinds.
      The city of Awaza is hosting the Caspian Economic Forum. The city is empty for much of year, despite having been billed as a tourism hub.

      A hermit nation

      When it gained independence from the USSR in 1991, Turkmenistan was a land dominated by pastoral tribes with different ethnic backgrounds.
      The first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, visits collective farms at the Gyaur Valley when Turkmenistan was still part of the USSR.
      General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, meets agricultural workers when Turkmenistan was still part of the USSR.
      President Saparmurat Niyazov, an ex-Soviet apparatchik, set about creating a national identity for his country, "inextricably weaving it around his own personality and presenting himself as the embodiment of those national ideals," according to The Foreign Policy Centre report.
      In 2001, Niyazov wrote a revisionist history of the country called "The Ruhnama" (meaning "The Book of Soul"), which schoolchildren and civil servants had to learn by heart. In the capital city Ashgabat, a giant mechanical monument of the book painted in gaudy colors opens at 8 p.m. each night with a light display and plays audio of a passage from the text.
      People in traditional dress when Turkmenistan was part of the USSR.
      Turkmenistan's first President also built a $50 million amusement park in the city based on local folklore and renamed the months of the year after historical figures, such as the poet Magtymguly, the semi-mythological founder of the Turkmen nation Oguz, as well as after himself and his mother.
      He also built a giant golden statue of himself in Ashgabat, which rotates to always face the sun. For reasons that remain unclear, the first Turkmen President banned ballet, opera and golden teeth.
      Niyazov presided over the golden years when gas prices were high and Russia was paying for the country's resources in cash. But he failed to diversify the economy. When he died in 2006, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, a dentist by trade and the former minister of health, was chosen to succeed him.
      "One personality cult was replaced by another," says Ruslan Tuhbatullin, who edits the news publication the Chronicles of Turkmenistan from his base in Vienna, Austria.
      In 2012, Berdymukhamedov introduced multiparty elections, but the last time Turkmenistan went to the polls, in 2017, the President was reelected with 98% of the vote. Turkmenistan also has an elected Parliament, but it is staffed by parties loyal to the President.
      State media likes to portray the 52-year-old President as a super-human figure with a seemingly endless array of talents. He is often shown riding horses, DJing, strumming his guitar with his grandson, playing with kittens or weightlifting a gold bar during ministerial meetings. Berdymukhamedov has also supposedly written more than 40 books on topics such as tea, herbal medicine and horses, according to the Chronicles of Turkmenistan.
      Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedo holds up a puppy he intended to give to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, in 2017.
      In Ashgabat, he went on a building spree, transforming the sleepy capital into a glitzy showpiece that belies the country's dire economic situation. A French expat, who spent a year living in Ashgabat in 2013 working for a construction company, and wishes to remain anonymous, remembers "a city covered in white marble, with no foreign brands, huge empty theaters and portraits of the President on every street corner." In recent years, a $2.3 billion airport shaped like a bird has been built, along with a $5 billion so-called "Olympic village" for the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games.