He's banned beards, honoured melons and offers dental advice. Is this the world's craziest dictator?

By Justin Huggler, Asia Correspondent
14 April 2004


He has banned beards and listening to car radios, and instituted a national holiday in honour of a melon. Now the world's craziest dictator has identified a new and pressing danger to his people: gold teeth.

It was atone of the interminable events in his honour that the President of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, turned to the young student from an agricultural university reading an address praising her President and told her to get her gold teeth removed and replaced with white ones. "Here's the health minister, himself a dentist," he told the unfortunate woman. "He will give you white teeth."

The great dictator did not stop there. He had some remarkable advice for the people of his former Soviet republic on how to avoid losing their teeth. "I watched young dogs when I was young," he said. "They were given bones to gnaw. Those of you whose teeth have fallen out did not gnaw on bones. This is my advice."

Gold teeth are popular in the desert country where, despite the health minister's credentials, dentistry standards are poor and many lose their teeth young. But they are expected to disappear in coming weeks: tips from Mr Niyazov are regarded as law.

This sort of eccentricity is becoming the norm under Mr Niyazov, who prefers to be known as Turkmenbashi, "Leader of the Turkmens". In many ways he is the classic dictator. Turkmenistan is littered with gold statues of him, including a giant revolving one in the capital, Ashgabat. He has appointed himself "president for life", and his rule is absolute.

But in Mr Niyazov's case this has meant his country of five million isforced to live under some of the weirdest laws of our times. Two months ago he used another television appearance to ban beards and long hair for men. Opera and ballet are not allowed, because Mr Niyazov decided they were unnecessary. He has changed street names in Ashgabat to numbers, and forced his ministers to take part in a 36km "health walk".

Surreally, he has followed in the footsteps of the fictional dictator in Woody Allen's movie Bananas, to redefine the ages of his citizens. Adolescence now lasts until 25, youth doesn't end until 37, and old age starts at 85.

Last year Mr Niyazov instituted a holiday in honour of the muskmelon, a relative of the watermelon, complete with lavish festivities, and ordered that everybody take part. "This godsend has a glorious history," national television announced. "Our great leader, who has a great love of his nation, has brought the name of the tasty melons to the level of a national holiday."

Behind the craziness, say human rights groups, lurks a deeply disturbing state. "Turkmenistan only makes the news because of these zany stories, but it is also an extremely repressive country," John MacLeod, of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, said.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission is due to vote this week on a resolution condemning Mr Niyazov, saying his rule is based "on the repression of all opposition political activities". It expresses grave concern over "arbitrary detention and imprisonment ... suppression of independent media ... restrictions on the exercise of freedom of thought ... discrimination against ethnic Russian, Uzbek and other minorities".

His regime did not just prevent dissent, Mr MacLeod said, it demanded constant loyalty. Schoolchildren were forced to study the Ruhnama, a weird stream-of-consciousness book by Mr Niyazov, full of disjointed pseudo-philosophy and slogans.

The apparatchik was in charge of the central Asian republic from the mid-1980s under communist rule, and easily took power when the country became independent in 1991. Since then he has ruthlessly removed potential rivals, to the extent that observers say he is without competent advisers, isolated from reality. He has visited the same fate upon his country, maintaining wary relations at best with neighbours and regional powers.

Mr Niyazov has also mismanaged the economy to the extent that it remains mired in poverty despite vast reserves of natural gas. But while the West has long been prepared to turn a blind eye to Mr Niyazov's excesses as companies compete for a planned pipeline to export gas through Afghanistan, observers say Mr Niyazov may have overreached himself in turning on the Russian minority, banning dual citizenship. Moscow is believed to be irritated.


Cambodia's Pol Pot

Executed Cambodians who wore glasses or spoke a foreign language.

Abolished money, religion, private property, hospitals and schools in a bid to return to 'year zero'.

Roman Emperor Nero

Made many attempts on his mother's life - finally succeeding - and staged musical contests from which no one was allowed out for any reason while he was performing.

Libya's Muammar Gaddafi

Deported half the Palestinian refugees and told them to walk back to Palestine.

Uganda's Idi Amin

Wanting "a black man's country", Amin expelled the country's 40,000 to 80,000 Indians and Pakistanis. Rumours surrounding Amin included charges of keeping severed heads in a freezer.


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