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.