Turkmenistan’s late "President for Life" on his way out
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Turkmenistan is finally getting rid of one of the country's countless extravagant monuments dedicated to former dictator Saparmurat Niyazov. Are they finally moving on from the cult of the Turkmenbashi, the "Leader of all Turkmen", a man so self-obsessed that he officially re-named the month of April after his mother? Read more ...
Turkmenbashi. Posted by Mirka Duijn on Flickr.
Turkmenistan is finally getting rid of one of the country's countless extravagant monuments dedicated to former dictator Saparmurat Niyazov. Are they finally moving on from the cult of the Turkmenbashi, the "Leader of all Turkmen", a man so self-obsessed that he officially re-named the month of April after his mother?
When Turkmen President Berdymukhamedov made the announcement in January that the "Neutrality Arch" - a 75-metre high triangular tower in the heart of the capital city of Ashgabat - would be relocated, he wasn't talking about just any monument. The tower is topped with a gold-plated statue of Saparmurat Niyazov, which rotates to follow the sun. Turkmenistan's self-declared "president for life", Niyazov ruled Turkmenistan with an iron fist between 1985 and 2006. Removing his monument is one more step in dismantling his ostentatious personality cult.
The country is also peppered with monuments in honour of "Ruhnama", the book Niyazov wrote as "spiritual guide for the nation". The text's title means "The Book of the Soul", and was mandatory reading in schools, universities and government institutions.
Turkmenbashi's successor has already binned many of his eccentricities. Since 2008, the months of the year have gone back to their original Turkmen names, which Niyazov had dropped six years before in favour of names evoking "national symbols". "Turkmenbashy" is back to being January. April is no longer "Gurbansoltan", the name of Niyazov's mother, and September has ceased to be "Ruhnama".
But several souvenirs of the Central Asian country's first president remain. The most important port on the Caspian Sea, once called Krasnovodsk, is still known as Turkmenbashy. And one part of Turkmenbashi's legacy will be especially difficult to retrieve: the copy of Ruhnama blasted into space on a Russian rocket in 2005.
Neutrality Arch, Ashgabat. Posted by Mikhail Perfilov on Flickr.
Ruhnama cake, Ashgabat.
"What hasn't changed since the days of Niyazov is that Turkmen continue to live in poverty and deprivation"
Annasoltan (not the person's real name) blogs about Turkmenistan on Neweurasia.net.
Somehow many in the world believe Berdymukhamedov is dismantling Niyazov's cult. While the Arch of Neutrality is being destroyed, a much larger and more expensive new Neutrality monument devoted to Berdymukhamedov himself will be erected in another part of the capital. Niyazov's books have been exchanged with books about Berdymukhamedov. And in keeping with the style of Niyazov, huge posters of the current president decorate streets, public buildings and schools across the country. A statue of the president's living father was also installed in Ashgabat. The personality cult remains the same, with only the person at the top exchanged.
The president is portrayed as a supernatural being with special powers and a mission to protect the country and act in its best interest. That means whatever he and his inner circle do is justified. But the personality cult is much more subtle than just this idolatry of one man, because being Turkmen itself is given a special position or pride, as though we are somehow spiritually different -- even superior -- to other nations. So, someone who does not conform to this viewpoint is branded ‘opposition' or an ‘enemy from within'.
What hasn't changed, though, since the days of Niyazov, is that Turkmen continue to live in poverty and deprivation. Just like before, there is political repression and strict control over every inch of society. And as for Berdymukhamedov's reforms, his promises concerning political life, civil society, human rights and personal freedoms remain mostly unfulfilled. Just about the only revolutionary thing he's done is expanding the internet throughout the country, but even that is fragile. Whatever change there is, at the moment it is not substantial and can be rolled back any time if he wishes to do so.
The excessive attention upon the personality cult has led to Turkmenistan being ridiculed and simplistically sidelined as an absurd country that is not worth further attention. But beyond this comical picture lies a sad truth: it has distracted attention from problems like drug addiction, unemployment among the youth, corruption, persecution, and lack of educational opportunities, not to mention environmental degradation. These are the real bread-and-butter issues that matter the most to ordinary people."
Turkmenbashi fountain, Ashgabat. Posted by Mirka Duijn on Flickr.
Rukhnama bookstore, on Turkmenbashi Street, Ashgabat. Posted by Sarah Byers on Flickr.
Rotating golden statue of Niyazov. Posted by Mikhail Perfilov on Flickr.
Turkmenbashi fountain. Posted by Martijn Munneke on Flickr.
Monuments to Niyazov and his book, Turkmenabad. Posted by "bilwander" on Flickr.
Neutrality Arch, Ashgabat. Posted by "caramel" on Flickr.
Turkmenbashi on Turkmen bills. Posted by Sarah Byers on Flickr.
Ruhnama quote, National Library, Ashgabat. Posted by Daniel Noll on his webpage
Turkmenbashi monument, Ashgabat. Posted by François-Olivier Dommergues on Flickr