The Turkmenbashi

As the Iron curtain fell in 1991 dragging communism down with it, the former Soviet State of Turkmenistan found itself quickly faced with the reality of independence and various political options ahead. The relatively unknown country borders Iran to the south, Afghanistan to East, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to the North and the Caspian Sea to the west. It consist primarily of desert with some irrigated farm land, and a lot of natural gas. Turkmenistan has had unexpectedly large amounts of international media attention, not for any of its achievements but rather for the outrageous antics of one man – its former Supreme Leader whose egocentric quest for a bit of immortality and a lot of power made him larger than life, literally.

Know as the Turkmenbashi – ”Head of All Turkmen” Saparmurad Niyazov was the President for life of Turkmenistan from the breakup of the Soviet Union when he was the head of communist party of Turkmenistan till his recent death on December 21, 2006. The authoritarian dictator of the natural gas rich yet underdeveloped nation is infamous for the personality cult he built up around himself. His image was inescapable and lives on even after his death; if you arrive via Turkmen Airways you’ll be staring at his portrait in the plane. His quotes greet you at the airport and then its nonstop on buildings and billboards everywhere, on the money, on watches, constant on the TV and even on the national vodka and perfume bottles. His statues adorn the many elaborate parks in the capital’s center with the most outrageous one atop Ashgabat tallest structure – the Neutrality Arch, atop of which stands a 12 meter high gold plated statue of the Niyazov with out stretched arms. Even more bizarre is the fact that the statue rotates slowly during the day to always face the sun.

“If I was a worker and my president gave me all the things they have here in Turkmenistan, I would not only paint his picture, I would have his picture on my shoulder, or on my clothing,” reportedly said Turkmenbashi. “I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets - but it's what the people want.”

While millions of dollars were wasted on large flashy construction projects to fuel the presidents ego the majority of Turkmen live in poverty ; child mortality is on the rise and life expectancy falling. Freedom of the press is non existent.

Among his many unusual decrees he renamed a Caspian Sea port, a fallen meteor as well as the month of January after himself, Turkmenbashi and the month of April and even bread after his mother. He banned lip syncing when performing songs, make up for news readers, long hair and beards on young men, and video games. More damaging decrees included the cancellation of many pensions and the closure of hospitals and libraries outside the capital stating - "Why should we waste good medical specialists on the villages when they should be working in the capital?"

His Rukhnama or Book of the Soul is one book that no one can escape in Turkmenistan. Authored by the man himself it is a mixture of spiritual guidance, rewritten history and culture. "We need to keep Rukhnama as a holy book in our houses," With very few other books available his books overpower book stores and libraries. The Rukhnama is required reading for all students. Everyone from school kids to medical students are tested on it as it has replaced a great number of textbooks. And like the presidents face it too can be seen everywhere on posters and even large replicas in the park that can mechanically open on special occasions.

christopher herwig