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Sydney Morning Herald, The (Australia)

November 6, 2004
Edition: First
Section: Good Weekend
Page: 41
Index Terms:


The man who would be king
Author: Story by tom templeton


Article Text:

He's turned himself into a living god, erecting thousands of statues in his own honour and even giving January his name. But while "President for Life" Saparmurat Niyazov claims to be leading Turkmenistan into a golden age, others fear his cult of personality will drive the country to ruin.

On October 27 the people of Turkmenistan - a gas-rich,

desert-dominated western Asian country - celebrated 13 years of independence from the former Soviet Union. There were feasts and military parades in the gleaming capital, Ashgabat. But, like the Soviet-era buildings behind the marble facades, the fabric of society is crumbling under

the rule of the man they were praising: Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenbashi the Great, Turkmenistan's "President for Life".

Turkmenistan has, since seceding from the Soviet Union in 1991, "acquired one of the worst totalitarian systems in the world", according to the European Parliament. And central to this system is a cult of personality

to match Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Turkmenistan's President Niyazov is a man, after all, who has renamed the month of January - after himself.

In the past decade, thousands of statues of Niyazov have been erected across the country. The grandest is 12 metres high and coated in gold leaf; it stands atop a 75-metre monument in the centre of Ashgabat and rotates to face the sun. Airports, regions, meteorites, cities and schools have been renamed after the president and his parents. Meetings in his office are televised and broadcast weekly on the three state TV channels.

As well as renaming January, Niyazov has renamed April after his mother, May after

his father, and September after his "divinely inspired" masterwork, the Rukhnama. This "book of the soul" dominates the life of his five million subjects. Written between 1997 and 2001, it fills bookstores across the country and has been made the cornerstone of an otherwise ravaged educational establishment. "On a par with the Bible and the Koran, it is to be used as a Spiritual Guide," writes Niyazov in the introduction, "to remove the complexities and anguishes from day-to-day living." There are regular pageants staged in sports stadiums depicting scenes from this opus, centring on the moral purity of his mother and father. And every morning at factories and schools, the citizens sing the national anthem, which refers to Turkmenistan as "the great creation of Turkmenbashi".

"If I was a worker and my president gave me all the things they have here in Turkmenistan, I would not only paint his picture, I would have his picture on my shoulder, or on my clothing," Niyazov said earlier this year. "I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the street - but it's what people want."

Saparmurat Atajevich Niyazov was born in the small village of Kipcak on the outskirts of Ashgabat in 1940. His father died in World War II, while his mother and brother were among the 100,000 killed in an earthquake that destroyed the capital in 1948. Niyazov grew up in an orphanage and went to study in St Petersburg before returning to Ashgabat to work as an engineer. He joined the Communist Party in 1962 and rose through the ranks before being chosen by the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to be general secretary of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan in 1985. It was perceived that his marriage to a Russian wife and his upbringing in an orphanage made him free of any clan allegiance - an important factor for a clan-based society like Turkmenistan's - and therefore perfect for the job. He was chosen to carry out Moscow's will because of his deference and obedience, and he proceeded to do so without dissent.

Perhaps understandably, given his party background, Niyazov was not in favour of Turkmenistan's independence when the Soviet Union began to disintegrate. When it became inevitable, however, he embraced the new ideology as enthusiastically as he had the old, assuming power as president, prime minister and the chairman of the council of ministers, and promoting Turkmen nationalism as his central aim - always with himself at the centre. As the Soviet yoke fell away he assumed the name "Turkmenbashi" ("father of the Turkmens"). He then set about forging the nation's new identity in his own image. Turkmen opposition figures were either driven into exile or imprisoned. (Most have since been released, but after their experiences in prison, and under constant surveillance since, those still in the country have never dared to speak out.)

In 1992, Niyazov "won" the first presidential elections unopposed, and settled into a Soviet-style dictatorship. His handpicked council of ministers voted him president for life in 1999. In 2001 the Humanitarian Association of

the World's Ethnic Turkmens voted to suffix Niyazov's name with Beyt ("great"), much to the president's dismay. "I am afraid of ever more titles - some even say I am a prophet," he complained.

State-owned newspapers are full of letters from citizens proclaiming their love for Niyazov. But loyalty to the president is not optional. Foreign newspapers are banned, and satellite TV is restricted and censored. The radio station Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is jammed in most towns. For obvious reasons, news of nearby Georgia's "Rose Revolution" - the American-engineered overthrow of Eduard Shevardnadze, last November - was not reported at all.

Meanwhile, bugging of telephones is assumed to be rife. Members of the intelligence services, police and military are visible on the streets of Ashgabat and other towns. Access to the internet is limited and monitored. Public demonstrations have been suppressed ruthlessly and no longer take place at all.

Only two religions are freely practised: Islam and orthodox Christianity. And freedom of movement is nonexistent: Turkmen citizens need permits to enter "special closed zones" which cover 40 per cent of the country, and travel is restricted between rural areas and the cities. According to the former US ambassador to Turkmenistan, Laura Kennedy: "Turkmenbashi controls everything in this country. He personally decides who comes in, who goes out." Announcing in March that government agencies would intensify their video surveillance of Turkmen citizens - installing cameras on every major street and site in the country - Niyazov said, "We should know if a fly quietly buzzes past."

The cameras, he claims, are there "not due to a lack of trust, but to avoid disorder". And the consequences of "disorder" are grave. Insulting Niyazov carries a minimum five-year prison sentence. Last year, terrifyingly vague treason laws were passed, carrying life imprisonment for anyone "attempting to sow doubt among people about the internal and foreign policies conducted by the first and permanent president of Turkmenistan, the Great Saparmurat", or even "encouraging opposition to the state". Professor Jerrold Post - who founded the CIA's Centre for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behaviour, and is director of the Political Psychology Program at George Washington University - is building a psychological profile of Niyazov. "There have only been a few cults of personality to match this: Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung in North Korea, and Mao Zedong. The narcissism of

the man is really beyond description - he has essentially turned himself into a living god."

Niyazov's grip on Turkmenistan tightened dramatically following the events of November 25, 2002, when shots were fired at the presidential motorcade. Deemed

a set-up by some observers, it led to the arrests of hundreds of political opponents, journalists, intellectuals and their family members. A month later at least 59 suspects were jailed after televised show trials - reminiscent of the Stalin era - were held, during which defence lawyers actually apologised for representing their clients. These included a drugged and bruised Boris Shikhmuradov, formerly foreign minister, whose confession to masterminding the assassination attempt was clearly read from a script. "I and my allies ... are not opposition members but ordinary criminals and drug addicts ... We are all worms ... I am a criminal able only to destroy the state."

According to Amnesty International: "The relatives of those imprisoned after the November 2002 events have still not been allowed to visit the prisoners. Many were tortured and there are indications that some died in prison, but there is no way of finding out the truth."

A ratcheting up of state repression followed across the board, including the sacking, in January 2003, of the chief mufti, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, who had led Turkmenistan's Muslims (the country's official religion) for the previous 10 years. Reports variously suggest he was suspected of involvement in

the "assassination" attempt, objected to having phrases from the Rukhnama written on the walls of mosques, or refused to declare publicly that Niyazov is "God's prophet". In March, Ibadullah was sentenced to 22 years

in prison for reasons that remain unclear. In the same month, two of the few independent journalists left in the country, from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, were arrested, beaten, drugged and warned against broadcasting within the country. An estimated 20,000 dissidents are now in prison.

Niyazov writes in the Rukhnama: "I am attempting to have a logical kind of freedom accepted and approved by this nation. Otherwise freedom will turn into irregularity and destroy the essentials of the state and harm the society."

Murad Turayev and Bayram Medrov (not their real names) are civil activists from the west and east of the country who have gathered and passed on information about the human rights situation in Turkmenistan at great personal risk. Turayev says the alienation felt by the majority of Turkmens is almost total: "The country has been converted into a hopeless and sinister reservation closed from the outside world. The main part of the population simply doesn't have any interest in what happens. Extreme poverty, unemployment and drug-taking have produced fear and hopelessness."

Meanwhile, Niyazov continues unchecked. Ever more eccentric edicts are carried out by increasingly sycophantic flunkeys, and by Western companies happy to land vast construction contracts. In August, Niyazov broadcast on state TV perhaps his oddest

plan yet. "Let us build a palace of ice so our children can learn to ice-skate," he said. "Big and grand enough for 1000 people." With temperatures reaching 50'C across much of the nation in summer, many people expected nothing to come of the idea, but Niyazov's favourite construction company, the French firm Bouygues, is scheduled to start on the $30 million project this month.

Perhaps the biggest threat posed by Niyazov's regime is an artificial lake under construction in the Karakum Desert, to be known as the Golden Age Lake. At an estimated cost of $6.5 billion, it is expected by many scientists

to reduce the scarce and vital water supplies of the desert nation through drainage and evaporation. Experts say the best expenditure of funds would be to dredge and re-line the Karakum Canal which makes life possible for

a large proportion of the Turkmen population. A senior Western official in Ashgabat, who refused to be named, believes Turkmenistan is at a crossroads. "What it does in the next 50 years will determine what it will be like in the next 10,000 years. It will either be a country that can sustain a population of up to eight or 10 million forever, or it will go back to being a desert with a few watering holes. If it doesn't invest its hydrocarbon profits in the water infrastructure, we will be bringing food aid

in 50 years' time.

"With the right leader," says the official, "it has a chance, but Niyazov's only looking at the next 25 years - he just wants people to be quiet while he fulfils his dreams of grandeur."

If one section of the population is the most sympathetic to its president it is the youth of Turkmenistan. According to Medrov: "A new generation is emerging that knows nothing apart from official propaganda. Before, everyone spoke Russian, could watch TV and know something about what happens in the world, but this new generation only speaks Turkmen, so they are absolutely cut off from all this. Today's state rule is becoming popular among them and this is a new danger."

The brainwashing is intense. Children at kindergarten learn phrases from the Rukhnama in praise of the great Turkmenbashi before they can read; schoolchildren have to spend two hours a day reading and pondering the lessons it contains. Entrance to university, interviews for jobs in the administration, even driving tests, depend on knowledge of the text. Earlier this year four Russian-speaking officials in the city of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) were sacked after failing the Rukhnama exam. One high school maths teacher in Ashgabat misread the question, "What are the names of the mother and father of the president's horse?" and instead named the president's mother and father. As a result, her accreditation was cancelled.

Erika Dailey, director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, says: "The government encourages children to go home and quiz their parents on the Rukhnama - and to tell their teacher if they are lacking in knowledge." Meanwhile, parents know their children have no alternative route to success other than winning cash prizes and appearances on TV by singing songs and reciting poems in praise of Niyazov. The education system is already hamstrung by the removal of children aged 10 and over to harvest cotton from September to November, and the shortening of the state education period from 11 to nine years. Ballet, opera, the circus and the cinema are banned in Turkmenistan - condemned

by Niyazov as contrary to national traditions. And a law passed last November required non-governmental organisations to re-register, heralding the closure of groups from ecology clubs to a sports club for disabled teenagers. The scope for development is shrinking all the time.

The only head of state the 40 per cent of the population under the age of 14 have ever known is President Niyazov. According to Murad Turayev: "The new generation of young boys and girls ... consider it absolutely normal to read the Rukhnama and give all these oaths to the president. For a quarter of the country's population, the Rukhnama is virtually the only book they will have read."

The anonymous Western official adds: "Within one or two generations you will find

a population of younger people who are totally useless, incapable of living in modern society."

Yet this generation plays an increasingly important role in Niyazov's heavily policed state. Military service is two years and usually starts

at age 17. Groups of teenagers with Kalashnikovs check the documents of people driving across the country. In order to bolster the failing economy, conscripts work as truck drivers, bakers, train attendants, traffic police and factory workers. On February 11, Niyazov sacked a third of the medical workforce - about 15,000 nurses and healthcare workers - by presidential decree, replacing them

with conscripts to save the state money. The Western official says that a priority for the country

is "trained people to run its services and its oil and gas industry. At the moment they have to buy in all their technicians from all over the world. If they don't keep pumping, which pays for the massive subsidy system to the nation, this country will slip into chaos."

Niyazov claimed on independence that Turkmenistan would be the new Kuwait. Bordering the Caspian Sea, the country has vast proven gas reserves - the fifth largest in the world - and plenty of oil. By 2001 this was modified to

a promise that within a year every family would have "a house, a car, and a cow with calf". This promise was then dropped for the more ambiguous propaganda slogan that "the 21st century is the golden age of the Turkmens".

Yet gas production is still not back up to the levels of the early '90s. Plans to build pipelines to Western markets in the Arabian Gulf or Mediterranean have foundered due to regional instability and Niyazov's unpredictability. The state provides free gas and water, cheap housing and bread, and for the men in Ashgabat at least, horse races. But anecdotally - for there are no hard statistics on Turkmenistan - unemployment, underemployment and non-payment of salaries are rife and worsening; state services are disintegrating; life expectancy falling. The free supply of gas and water is at the heart of all of Niyazov's claims to be a generous, successful leader. When he introduced the system 12 years ago it was supposed

to remain in place for a decade before people began to pay. The anonymous Western official says, "If these services were withdrawn there would be chaos, you'd be looking at a revolution."

Meanwhile, despite EU and UN resolutions requesting that the Turkmen authorities co-operate with international human rights organisations, no such co-operation has ensued. Certain laws - the introduction of exit visas, the restriction of religious practice - have been amended, but in practice little has changed; people cannot leave the country freely and they are free only to practise the central religions.

Human Rights Watch believes international organisations have some leverage: "The Turkmen government takes great pride in its UN membership. The UN must make clear that [Turkmenistan's] failure to co-operate is unacceptable."

Aaron Rhodes, executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, says that support from major foreign governments is needed: "Much more could be done to force peaceful change; if major world leaders with authority would acknowledge that this is a dictatorship, depriving people of rights, this would really have an effect."

But there are other factors to consider. The US Air Force benefits from being able to fly its jets through Turkmen airspace. The vast reserves of gas and oil in Turkmenistan have been the subject of frantic lobbying by Western governments in

the past, and the possibility of securing access in the future must act as a brake to any criticisms of Niyazov. In fact, a high-level Russian delegation visiting Niyazov earlier in the year praised his achievements as "fantastic" and the Rukhnama as

"a serious philosophical work". They also signed a co-operation agreement designed to encourage joint investment in the fishing industry, mining and, most importantly, gas production.

According to Rhodes, "There's a tremendous tendency to support the status quo. People don't want to rock the boat, they don't need another failed state on their hands. They probably would like to see Turkmenbashi keep power."

Erika Dailey believes the status quo will lead to disaster. "If the trend continues, and neither economic nor political reform is introduced soon, Turkmenistan will become non-functional, a failed state."

Robert Corzine is one of the few Western journalists to have met Niyazov. In his experience, the president is unlikely to be unduly swayed by outside influence. He recalls an interview in 1999 in which the subject of the oil- and gas-rich Caspian Sea arose: "Niyazov got a map and said, 'I'll tell you who owns the Caspian,' and he took out his $1000 pen, crossed out the word Azeri Oilfield [property of Azerbaijan] and wrote Serdar ['leader' - his name] Oilfield in

its place. Stabbing the map he said, 'That's mine, that's mine.' When I left the meeting, his then foreign minister, Boris Shikhmuradov, who was more of

a suave character, said, 'You can tone down some of the things the president said.' But Niyazov, who had overheard, said: 'No, he can write whatever he wants.' The next day when the story appeared, the Azerbaijanis sent gunboats out."

Despite a recent heart bypass operation, there are no serious indications that Niyazov has a succession plan: an election mooted for 2008 is expected to disappear like previous dates, and he will almost certainly rule until he dies. According to one Western observer, Niyazov won't be worried about succession, either: "He wants to leave the greatest mosque and all his buildings and monuments, and go down in history as the great salvation of Turkmenistan and

the greatest Khan - greater even than Tamburlaine or Ghengis Khan."

SEVEN PHOTOS: "I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the street - but it's what people want": an official portrait (top) and a golden statue (right) of Saparmurat Niyazov. Keeping in step: (top) the army marches past a painting of Niyazov on the seventh anniversary of the country's independence from the Soviet Union, 1998; (above) the president in his office. APL; AP/AAP APL; GAMMA/headpress APL; AP "If major world leaders would acknowledge that this is a dictatorship, depriving people of rights, this would really have an effect": (above) Niyazov meets Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma in 1998. APL. this is an EDITED VERSION of AN ARTICLE FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE OBSERVER MAGAZINE The president's face is everywhere, but Western officials fear his regime will leave behind a generation "incapable of living in modern society". MAP: Turkmenistan

Copyright (c) 2004 John Fairfax Publications Pty Limited. Not available for re-distribution.
Record Number: 20041106000015167348

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