The bizarre world of Turkmenbashi the Great

His golden statue rotates to face the sun. He has
renamed January after himself. And under his rule, his
country has become as wealthy as Dubai and as paranoid
as North Korea. Stephen Castle reports on President
Niyazov of Turkmenistan
23 April 2005

Turkmenistan's "president for life" Saparmurat Niyazov
is grinning broadly from behind a highly polished
table in the marbled and wood-panelled opulence of his
Ashgabat palace. "Are you happy with what you find in
our country?" the President asks his visitor, one of
the rare foreigners who will question the country's
dubious human rights situation.

Offered a studiously neutral reply, President
Niyazov's smile melts quickly as he leans forward to
repeat the question, only this time with an air of
menace. Then The Independent is firmly shown the door
as the president for life squares up to Dimitrij
Rupel, of Slovenia, representing the OSCE, a
pan-European watchdog devoted to conflict prevention
and human rights.

With almost absolute power over the lives of his
subjects, Mr Niyazov has unleashed a series of bizarre
and arbitrary policies, closing operas, ballets,
circuses, and orchestras. Libraries in rural areas are
being shut down, education is being ravaged.

Although about 90 per cent of Turkmenistan's people
live outside the capital, health care in the regions
is being scaled down. "If people are ill, they can
come to Ashgabat," the President was quoted as saying,
despite the fact that Turkmenistan is twice the size
of Britain. Reports that all regional hospitals have
been closed are denied, though the situation outside
the capital is impossible to verify. What is known is
that the President has already fired 15,000 health
personnel, replacing them with army conscripts. While
rural health care is being cut, the President recently
flew a team of six German doctors to Turkmenistan to
give him an eye operation.

Thanks to his grip on his country's vast oil and gas
reserves, President Niyazov has turned Turkmenistan
into one of the most closed countries in the world,
creating a personality cult to rival that of Kim
Jong-Il. Under his rule the former Soviet republic has
become an unsettling mixture, with all the showy
wealth of a country such as Dubai and the rampant
paranoia of North Korea.

This, after all, is a leader whose gold-leaf covered
statue can be seen in the city's skyline as it rotates
to face the sun, a man who has renamed the month of
January after himself.

The ornate palace is one of two belonging to the
President, who in fact lives in neither, preferring
another residence out of town. Inside, the motif is
marble rather than gold, with a decorated roof
overhanging an enormous entrance hall which sports
large paintings of Turkoman warriors of the past.

Up the large central staircase and through two
antechambers lies the President's chandeliered office,
where a stocky man wearing a white short-sleeved shirt
and a long red tie sits behind an elaborate floral
display. Despite his eye and heart surgery, the
President looks fit and energetic, having died jet
black the grey hair that can be seen in his portrait
on the country's banknotes. In the entire palace there
is only one hint that we are in a former Soviet
republic; visitors needing to answer a call of nature
are advised to bring their own lavatory paper.
Thirteen years after the disintegration of the Soviet
Union gave Turkmenistan its independence, President
Niyazov's domination is total, his regime more
unpredictable and extreme than ever.

Human Rights Watch put the situation thus: "Abuses are
widespread and include violations of civil, political,
social, economic and cultural rights. There is no free
media, or freedom of expression, assembly, or
association. Those who criticise the government are
imprisoned after grossly unfair trials and often
tortured; their relatives are often evicted from their
homes and dismissed from their workplaces. In a
practice reminiscent of the Stalin era, the government
banishes individuals and groups deemed 'dangerous' to
uninhabitable desert regions."

Turkmenistan is an archetypal one-party state with no
opposition or centres of alternative power. Most of
its citizens are cut off from the outside world:
internet access is limited and expensive, with sites
deemed to be subversive blocked by the one provider.
Cable television was scrapped, although across
Ashgabat satellite dishes have sprung up allowing
viewers to bypass state television's obsession with
the President.

Foreigners' entry to the country is strictly
controlled, although yesterday the President was moved
to abolish a law requiring foreigners to deposit
£26,000 in a bank account and own an apartment here if
they want to marry a local. Recently the government
ended its contract with the international courier DHL,
cutting one of the few reliable links with the rest of
the world. Britain's embassy in Ashgabat tends to
avoid controversy by concentrating on such issues as
commercial links, donating free solar panels to
nomads, helping combat drugs trafficking and giving
away English textbooks. Complaining about human rights
abuses is left to Mr Rupel and the OSCE. Because
Turkmenistan is a member, it is one of the few
international organisations still attempting a
dialogue with President Niyazov, hoping to curb his
worst excesses, though it knows it is walking a

That is because conversations with the President are
filled with bonhomie until mention is made of
Turkmenistan's total disregard for human rights. At
this point discussions tend to go one of two ways. On
some occasions, according to one visitor, President
Niyazov laughs the matter off, along the lines of "did
we really send him to prison? Oh, perhaps we did, ha,
ha, ha". On others, he launches into a lengthy and
angry tirade. After this 90-minute private encounter,
Mr Rupel, who is Slovenia's Foreign Minister,
described talks as "controversial and lively from time
to time" - as close as a politician will come to
saying that they have had a shouting match.
Nevertheless, officials rank the discussions as a
success on the basis that, as one put it, "at least
there was an exchange of views rather than the
standard monologue from the President".

Turkmenistan's law provides a framework for one of the
globe's most repressive regimes. One piece of
legislation bars "traitors of the motherland" from
contacting foreigners, another bundles together
terrorists and anyone branded a political opponent.

But it is not just repressive laws that mark out
Turkmenistan, it is the fact that the population is
subject to the whims of the supreme autocrat, widely
known as Turkmenbashi or father of all Turkomans.
There may, for example, be no specific ban on beards
in Turkmenistan, but the President dislikes them and
consequently there are no bearded men on the streets
of Ashgabat. When a similar presidential objection to
gold fillings was expressed, students with the wrong
kind of dental work started to find it impossible to
get places in higher education.

The "respected leader, great Turkmenbashi" encourages
traditional folk dancing but not pop music. Alcohol is
freely available to the overwhelmingly Muslim
population but smoking in the street means an instant
fine. And, although about 90 per cent of Turkmenistan
is covered by desert, one of Mr Niyazov's latest ideas
is to build an ice-rink.

Saparmurat Niyazov was born in 1940 and lost his
father during the Second World War and his mother in
the earthquake that struck Ashgabat in 1948. Brought
up in an orphanage, he trained as an engineer in
Leningrad, then rose through the Communist Party to
its most senior post in Turkmenistan.

Amid the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he became
the first president of the newly created Turkmenistan
in October 1990, by popular vote but unopposed. In
elections in 1992 the President was endorsed with 99.5
per cent of the votes cast. His grip has been
tightened since November 2002, when the presidential
motorcade came under attack. No one is quite sure
whether this was a set-up or a proper coup attempt,
though the result was a series of show trials and a
purge of potential rivals assumed to be rotting in
jail. There are no statistics on the number of
political prisoners in Turkmenistan, and President
Niyazov now refers to them as terrorists. At the
Turkmenistan parliament, Mr Rupel's call for
development of democracy was somehow lost in
translation and became "development of the state".

Life for the President's subjects is ruled by the
country's most important book, the Rukhnama, a
400-page tome written by the supreme ruler. The
Rukhnama blends personal experiences - including an
account of the death of the President's mother - with
extracts from the Koran, national legends and Turkoman
history. A stream of consciousness, it comes in no
particular order, complicating the task of the
populace since knowledge of the Rukhnama is a
prerequisite for getting a driving licence, let alone
a decent job.

Meanwhile, the new calendar has replaced January with
Turkmenbashi, renamed April after his mother and
September after the Rukhnama. This is a place of
domes, spires, arches, landscaped gardens and
fountains, but very few people. Yet behind the
grandiose façade, there are growing signs that central
Ashgabat may be little more than a giant Potemkin
village - like the fake settlements created to impress
Catherine the Great on her tours of the 18th century.
So much cash has been spent in the capital that little
is left for the rest of the country. According to one
resident, going outside Ashgabat is like "being back
in the USSR".

The economy is heavily reliant on energy, but
under-investment has hampered production levels.
Otherwise the business environment is stagnant and
agriculture depends on irrigation - a huge problem
since all water resources originate outside the
country. Even arithmetic books ask questions such as:
if one child has read three pages of the Rukhnama and
a second has read two, how many have been read in all?
But the winds of change may soon be blowing through
the empty streets of Ashgabat. Last month in
Kyrgystan, the President was swept from power by a
peaceful and popular uprising. This week President
Niyazov promised that he would retire before the next
presidential elections in 2009.

Few take him at his word, however. With no political
opponents, no independent media, no obvious rival and
an iron grip on the country, mortality seems the main
threat to the 65-year-old President, given that he has
undergone heart bypass surgery.

And, in the city's Russian bazaar, there are few signs
of unrest. One market trader declares life to be good,
citing the free gas, electricity and water. Food is
plentiful and Serdar vodka is on sale for the
equivalent of 50p - making it about half the price of
a copy of the Rukhnama. Naturally, the label on the
bottle bears a prominent picture of Turkmenistan's
smiling President. 


Back To Islam Awareness Homepage

Latest News about Islam and Muslims

Contact for further information