One Long Holiday in Turkmenistan

  • Students in Turkmen national costume wait for their turn to perform at one of the many state-organised celebrations.(Photo: IWPR)
  • Concert held to mark how well things are going in Turkmenistan. The poster shows the increasingly ubiquitous President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov. (Photo: IWPR)

The Central Asian state of Turkmenistan has so many celebrations that it often seems that one is only just over when the next one starts. In between, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov tours the country in grand style, opening an exhibition here and a conference there.

For this month, for example, state-run newspapers have published a list of 49 festivities and public events. In July and August, there were 100 celebrations.

It is all part of the personality cult building around Berdymuhammedov, in much the same way that his predecessor Saparmurat Niazov was the focus of carefully-orchestrated adulation.

A Turkmen-language teacher in the west of the country is clearly a fan.

"President Berdymuhammedov is an outstanding statesman and politician or our times. He’s a professor in several disciplines, an academic, a sixth-dan holder in karate, the author of several books about carpets, Turkmen horses and medicinal herbs, and finally, he is the ‘Arkadag’, the officially-designated Patron of the Nation," the teacher said. "Turkmen people have someone to praise and be proud of."

Not everyone is so delighted – especially those drafted in to provide the cheering crowds for all these events. Everyone from public-sector employees, students and schoolchildren to army conscripts is required to turn out.

In July, for example 500 doctors and nurses were despatched from the capital Ashgabat to attend the opening ceremony for a new health centre in Mollakar in the western Balkan region.

"The government initially ordered 1,000 health workers, but we only managed to gather half that number," a reporter for an Ashgabat newspaper said. "They had to stand there for five hours, waving artificial flowers and balloons and listening to speeches in praise of the Arkadag, who untiringly concerns himself with the nation’s health.”

An education official in capital said such events were a tiresome distraction.

"In the first 20 days of September, I’ve been taken away from my job 13 times and forced to take part in tedious festivities lasting many hours," she said.

She described one such event staged by the education ministry at a school in the Goktepe district outside the capital, a conference entitled "The Conscious Life of the Son of Myalikguly Berdymuhammedov, Loyal Son of the Homeland” – in other words the president.

"All the education officials from Ashgabat and Ahal region were gathered together in school to listen to the praises and salutations heaped on the father of our Arkadag," she said.

A government directive instructs all citizens to attend events known as "weekend celebrations" – sports events, horse races, and the professional holidays generally held on Sundays for power engineers, carpet-weavers, water industry workers and so on.

People who resent being coerced to give up so much free time resort to subterfuge to get out of it.

A family practitioner at one Ashgabat clinic described how the number of people coming in for sick notes or certificates of temporary disability increased towards the end of the week.

"Some people use sick leave as an excuse to avoid spending hours standing up these events,” he said. “Others get out of it by giving bribes or gifts to their managers.”

This article was produced as part of News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.

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