Turkmen leader rewards himself

A lavish pendant, 30% raise and commemorative coins hark back to his predecessor's personality cult.

Associated Press/July 1, 2007

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan — Turkmenistan's president awarded himself a large gold and diamond pendant and a 30% raise to celebrate his 50th birthday, an echo of the lavish personality cult built around his autocratic late predecessor.

The government also issued 200 gold and 200 silver coins decorated with a portrait of the current leader, Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, the Neutral Turkmenistan newspaper said Saturday.

Berdimukhamedov gave himself the Motherland Order, a gold pendant bedecked with diamonds on a massive golden chain lined with gems, for his "outstanding achievements," the newspaper reported. It weighed more than 2 pounds.

As part of the award, Berdimukhamedov also got $20,000 and the 30% salary and pension increase, it said. The report did not say what his salary was.

"All my efforts are aimed at ensuring that Turkmens lead a decent life, that people don't need anything, that they are happy," Berdimukhamedov was reported as saying.

Berdimukhamedov, who was elected in February, has signaled more openness — including opening Internet cafes — in this natural-gas-rich but impoverished former Soviet republic, where the average monthly salary is $90.

Yet he has also vowed to stick largely to the course set by Saparmurad A. Niyazov, who died in December after a two-decade rule that quashed dissent and who cultivated an extravagant cult around himself.

Niyazov boasted 40 awards and issued coins with his portrait to celebrate his birthdays. Massive statues of him abound, including a golden one in this capital that rotates to follow the sun's path.

"Step by step, [Berdimukhamedov] is beginning to reproduce the style and the aesthetics of Niyazov's regime," said Arkady Dubnov, a Russian Central Asia analyst.

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