Let them drive Mercedes, Turkmenistan's poor told

The Guardian, UK/February 7, 2003
By Nick Paton Walsh

After a busy period in which he has renamed the months of the year after himself and his mother and responded to an assassination attempt with repression, President Saparmurat Niyazov of poverty-stricken Turkmenistan has rewarded his officials with a new Mercedes each.

Following a promise made in 1992 that the entire population would receive a car and own their house within a decade, Mr Niyazov has finally made a start - beginning at the top.

Ministers, committee heads, regional bosses and other senior bureaucrats will receive a new Mercedes each year and are supposed to pass their old cars on to their staff.

The gifts will be seen as the sugar coating for another move announced yesterday - the establishment of a commission to track the movements of politicians and foreigners across the country.

Despite huge deposits of precious metals and gas reserves, the Turkmen people live on an annual income of $670 (£408). The draconian levels of state control have prompted comparisons with Stalinist Russia.

Mr Niyazov escaped an assassination attempt last November which critics have claimed was staged to justify a crackdown on the opposition.

Human rights activists say Mr Niyazov's regime is known for its cruelty and eccentricities. Last year he renamed the month of April after his mother, who died in a 1948 earthquake.

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