The Turkmen theocracy lost its god

The Turkis News/December 22, 2006
By Mustafa Akyol

Saparmurat Niyazov, or "His Excellency Turkmenbashi, President of Turkmenistan and Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers" as his official title read, was one of the few remaining icons of a 20th century political phenomenon: Cult of personality. As a man who grew up in a Soviet orphanage, and who built his political career in the Communist Party of the Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan, he was loyal to the heritage of his late comrades such as Stalin or Mao, who depicted themselves as secular gods.

"Turkmenbashi," i.e. "Head of Turkmens," had been running Turkmenistan since the fall of the Soviet Union. He continued with the Soviet style politics, and thus didn't allow any political opposition to flourish. During his 15-year reign, freedom of speech has been virtually non-existent. Any criticism of the leader has been considered treason and punishable by lengthy prison terms, imprisonment in mental institutions, or exile to camps in remote areas. Government informers have been closely monitoring the society to find out such enemies of the people, i.e. proponents of freedom.

Autocratic rule seems to be the norm in most ex-Soviet Republics - including the mother of all, Russia - but Niyazov had taken it to new heights. He portrayed himself as an all-knowing guide to his people. In tradition with Lenin and Stalin — remember Leningrad and Stalingrad — he renamed the town of Krasnovodsk, on the Caspian Sea, after himself. "Turkmenbashi" also became the name of several schools and airports. His face appears on all banknotes and his large portraits hang all over the country, especially on major public buildings and main streets.

There is even a "Melon Day," in which the "Turkmenbashi melon," a new crossbreed product, is praised for "its delicious aroma, excellent taste and large size,” and Turkmen children eat them joyfully under the all-seeing eyes of their leader's abundant busts. "The Turkmen melon is the source of our pride," said Niyazov in a statement published in Turkmen newspapers. "Its taste has no equals in the world, the smell makes your head spin."

And it really had done so. The ideas of Turkmenbashi have been the official ideology of Turkmenistan since 1991. His pink and green volume known as the Rukhnama (Book of the Spirit) was translated into many languages and was continuously reproduced by state newspapers. Turkmenbashi had also adopted the image of the "sun-leader," a popular theme in other dictatorships like North Korea, which envisions an almost supernatural savior enlightening his otherwise-in-darkness nation. Niyazov actually brought his own creative contribution to this political cult with the Neutrality Arch, a fancy structure which is the tallest building of the capital Ashgabat. At its top, there is gold-plated statue of Niyazov that rotates 360 degrees every 24 hours so as to always face the sun. The idea is that the illuminates his nation with the one he gets from the skies.

But don't get it wrong: All this official cult was not for the sake of the all-modest Niyazov, but for his all-thankful people. "I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets," he once said, "but it's what the people want."

Interestingly, the state propaganda - which had been defining what the people want without asking them much - have recently been stressing the Turkmen leader's health and vigor, emphasizing his once-grey hair miraculously turning jet-black. Which could, of course, be explained in more mundane terms.

And just yesterday Niyazov faced the inevitable ending of every mortal. The question awaiting his people is whether they will come to explain the whole Niyazov experience in mundane terms - as an embarrassing relic of communist despotism, perhaps - or whether they will seek yet another sun-leader.

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