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Turkmenistan: Death of a God

22 December 2006

Turkmenistan: Death of a God

By Gwynne Dyer

“The narcissism of the man is really beyond description,” said Prof. Gerald Post, director of the Political Psychology Program at George Washington University. “He has essentially turned himself into a living god.” But now the god is dead.

Saparmurat Niyazov, supreme ruler of Turkmenistan for the past 21 years, was a Communist dictator who made North Korea’s father-and-son act, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, look like shrinking violets. Post-Communist, actually, since he dropped the ideology once the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, but in all practical respects Niyazov was a Stalinist until the day he died (last Thursday).

The biggest of the thousands of statues of Niyazov that litter Turkmenistan sits atop a 91-metre (310-foot) arch in the centre of the capital, Ashgabat, and rotates to face the Sun. Covered in gold leaf and wearing a flowing cloak, the statue makes Niyazov look like a pudgy Superman, but he always insisted that it was nothing to do with him. “I’m personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the street, but it’s what people want,” he said modestly. He probably half-believed that he was immortal, for he made no provision whatever for his succession. And now, suddenly, he is gone.

Turkmenistan, on the northern borders of Iran and Afghanistan, sits on enough natural gas — at least 2.9 trillion cubic metres, or enough to cover German consumption for thirty years — to guarantee its five million citizens a Kuwait-style living standard. In reality, they live more like Albanians, while the huge gas revenues have gone into prestige projects like an ice palace in the mountains, an artificial lake in the desert, and a pseudo-Disneyland in the outskirts of Ashgabat. But Niyazov’s worst crime was to destroy all political and governmental structures and replace them with his personality cult.

Niyazov renamed January “Turkmenbashi” (“Father of the Turkmens, the title he gave himself). He renamed April after his mother, May after his father, and September after his self-published book, the “Rukhnama”, a farrago of personal philosophy, quotations from holy texts and Turkmen history that was required reading for all citizens. (“On a par with Bible and the Koran, it is to be used as a Spiritual Guide to remove the complexities and the anxieties from day to day living,” he wrote in the introduction.)

Niyazov presided over a drastic fall in educational levels in Turkmenistan that has left the nation prey to every sort of extremism. He reduced compulsory schooling from eleven years to nine, stopped the teaching of Russian, and closed all hospitals outside Ashgabat. He also banned opera, ballet, beards and even car radios. No topic was immune to the exercise of his iron whim.

Under Soviet rule, there was decent health care and good education for everybody (in both Russian and Turkmen). Given Turkmenistan’s gas wealth, it was well able to maintain those services after the separation in 1991, but instead Niyazov spent the income on monuments to himself and “prestige” projects. Now that he is suddenly and unexpectedly gone at the age of 66, there is bewilderment in the streets and a frantic scramble for power at the centre.

The deputy president, Kerbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has promised an election in the near future, but he has not been forthcoming on significant details like how many candidates will be allowed. If the people in Niyazov’s inner circle can agree on a single candidate, the present tyrannical system may continue for a time, perhaps with less in the way of grotesque excess. If not, Turkmenistan is in for an interesting time.

The worst result of Niyazov’s two decades in power has been the collapse in educational standards among the younger generation, most of whom do not speak Russian and so have no access to uncensored media. Niyazov encouraged this collapse because it made for a less critical, more submissive population, but it has also produced a younger generation that is ignorant of its faith and wide open to extreme interpretations of Islam.

The other curse of Turkmenistan is clan. Niyazov was a master of the clan game, balancing one clan’s interests against another to secure his power — even under Soviet rule, that’s how Central Asia was really run — but it worked partly because Niyazov himself was outside the clan structure. (His Turkmen father was killed in the Second World War, his Russian mother and his brother died in the earthquake that levelled Ashgabat in1948, and he was raised in a Soviet orphanage.) All of his close associates have clear clan ties, and will find it much harder to play the balancing game.

There is an older generation of Turkmens, educated in Soviet times, who should in theory be able to demand and run a modern, democratic society, but after twenty years of extreme repression their will to do so is not certain. Under Niyazov, Turkmenistan has been a brutally repressive state, but one that left the neighbours strictly alone. Now it could become a theocratic state, or a failed state, or even both.

Or it could become a prosperous, democratic country that respects its citizens’ rights and creates all sorts of interesting opportunities in life for them. The Turkmens themselves will have to decide for themselves.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Niyazov renamed…introduction”; and “The deputy…time”)