A new personality cult rises in Turkmenistan

AFP/March 28, 2009

Ashgabat - Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkmenistan, an arid desert nation on the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea, has struggled under a regime known widely for its bizarre excesses and squandered resources.

His smiling face is the first you see when boarding a plane to Turkmenistan. His portrait adorns every government building and even a brand of chocolates has been moulded to carry a picture of his face.

But the face is not that of late Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, who declared himself "Leader of all Turkmens" (Turkmenbashi) and built up a personality cult that made the Central Asian state notorious worldwide.

In fact, the beaming visage belongs to Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who many expected to curb the excesses of Niyazov's rule when he came to power two years ago.

Growing signs of a new personality cult, albeit not yet on the scale of the Turkmenbashi's, have led many in this troubled state to conclude that talk of reform by the 51-year-old leader was just that: talk.

"We can already say the following about all our publications: if earlier they extolled 'the greatness' of Niyazov, now they sing the praises of Berdymukhamedov's 'reforms'," said Nurdzhamal, a 34-year-old activist.

She said she has been unable to register her NGO -- an environmental protection group -- despite promises of greater political freedom from the government.

She spoke on the condition that neither her name nor the town where she lived be disclosed, for fear of reprisals from the government.

Turkmenistan is believed to hold huge deposits of natural gas, but much of its capacity has been unexplored due to difficulties faced by the foreign energy companies that attempted to develop them in the 1990s.

The funds that were generated under Niyazov was mostly ploughed into the construction of palaces and statues that outwardly defined his personality cult, or into the pockets and off-shore accounts of the regime.

Niyazov, an ex-Communist party boss turned fervent nationalist, was famous for erecting golden statues of himself across the country and for making his "Spiritual Guide" compulsory reading in schools and factories -- and even part of the driving test.

Berdymukhamedov, a former health minister and dentist by profession, has dismantled some of the more bizarre aspects of Niyazov's personality cult since coming to power.

Last year he abolished an invented calendar in which the names of months and days were changed to include months in honour of the president and his mother.

Other steps to roll back the Niyazov regime under Berdymukhamedov have included the lifting of bans on cinema, circuses and foreign opera and ballet.

But despite these positive steps, many here see moves such as the new portraits and the recent naming of a new grand mosque after the president, as a sign that one personality cult has simply been abandoned for another.

As under Turkmenbashi, Berdymukhamedov?s portrait now sits at the front of every Turkmen Airlines cabin. His face has followed Niyazov's onto a vodka bottle label and his latest book, a tome on Turkmen horses, has been translated into three languages. The array of new portraits and products named after the president has neither escaped nor surprised Bayram-aga, a 67-year-old former university professor.

Those at the top of the state fear that simply erasing the cult of Turkmenbashi without replacing it could cause instability, or even the collapse of the regime, he said.

"A holy place cannot be left empty," he said, quoting a Turkmen proverb.

"Another, no less significant personality than Turkmenbashi must be offered to the people, and how do you make it significant? Constant praise, gradually erasing from the people?s memory the name of... Turkmenbashi."

Berdymukhamedov, Central Asia's youngest leader, has quietly moved to do just that.

While erasing outward signs of Turkmenbashi's rule, he has seized all the powers the mercurial former leader once held: he is president and prime minister, party head and military commander in chief.

In March, a new mosque in Turkmenistan's second city, Mary, was named after him, the first such instance of what was a near-universal practice under Niyazov.

Chief Mufti Rovshen Allaberdiev told reporters that the decision to name the building -- a grand structure built to hold 2,500 worshippers -- came neither from the church nor the state.

"It was the wish of the believers that the new mosque was named 'Gurbanguly-Hadji'," he said.

It is not only in public, some say, but behind the closed doors of power that this trend is taking shape.

A Western diplomat, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, described wild adulation this month when Berdymukhamedov met the country's Council of Elders, a traditional government advisory body stripped of its powers under Niyazov.

Thousands of regional elites leapt to their feet, he said, repeatedly interrupting the president's speech to shout out praise.

The effusive praise of one man in particular, a collective farm head called Murad Sapiyev, stood out as jarring to the diplomat.

"Three years ago that same man pronounced exactly the same words from the rostrum of the People's Council (a body that had replaced the Council of Elders), but they were directed at Turkmenbashi," he said.

"Berdymukhamedov positioned himself as a man of action, a progressive reformer with new ideas. What I saw at the congress of the Council of Elders showed me just how far things have rolled back to the time of Turkmenbashi."

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