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Ballet Offends Turkmenbashi

Will there be any room for culture in President Niazov's "golden era for Turkmen"?
By Nazik Ataeva

Turkmenistan's president is closing down theatres and getting rid of books which he believes "misrepresent" the nation's history.


This year alone, President Saparmurat Niazov, or Turkmenbashi, the country's unchallenged strongman, has ordered ministers to close the Opera and Ballet Theatre, the Theatre for Young Audiences, the National Variety and Circus House, and the State Philharmonic Hall in the capital, Ashgabat.


The president said these cultural institutions had lost their relevance and people did not want them.


Turkmenbashi criticised his culture minister and his staff for not having closed the theatres earlier. "Who needs Tosca or La Traviata anymore?" exclaimed the President indignantly.


"You [culture officials and artists] must stage performances that are rooted in ethnic Turkmen art. That's what our people want," he was quoted as telling a congregation of cultural officials and artists.


As for ballet, the president remarked that female semi-nudity on stage offended the Turkmen people and their high moral values. The same applied to circuses. Niazov ordered the Opera & Ballet Theatre to be replaced by a National Drama Theatre that will stage Turkmen historical epics.


The strongman's crackdown on theatres shocked the community, even though the move was a logical consequence of a state policy of "Turkmenisation" of all aspects of life, seen as the groundwork for a new national ideology.


The policy takes little account of the interests of the republic's ethnic minorities, such as Russians, who comprise around ten per cent of the population, and Uzbeks and Kazaks who make up nine and two per cent respectively.


According to Human Rights Watch, the number of Russian speakers seeking to leave Turkmenistan increased significantly this year. Niazov's initiative is another blow to this shrinking minority. Given the strong historic ties between Russia and the world of opera and ballet, the new presidential decree threatens to root out Russian culture completely.


It will also affect the lives of the Russian-speaking Turkmen. Although the majority community constitutes more than 70 per cent of the population, many use Russian as a means of communication.


It is not just Russian speakers who feel threatened. The output of Uzbek-language print and broadcast media for Turkmenistan's sizeable Uzbek minority in the east of the country also reportedly shrank this year.


"What's going to become of our children if all they get to be raised on are Turkmen heroic epic tales?" asked a secondary school teacher who did not want to be named.


Prominent actors and artists already have been laid off en masse.


Svetlana, a ballet student whose school has been abolished under the president's decree, feels bitter. "I've been in ballet for nine years and I would have graduated next year," she said. "Ballet is my whole life. I wanted to be a professional ballerina and bring joy to audiences.


"Now all these years of hard work are going down the drain and, adding insult to injury, the government has also condemned ballet as 'indecent' or 'immoral'.


"We'll be fine, though. We are still young. But what about our instructors who have devoted their whole life to ballet? They've lost their jobs and are on the street now."


One consolation is the fact that the Pushkin Drama Theatre, which is patronised by the Russian embassy, still survives in Ashgabat, as a little oasis of Russian culture. But even this could be closed shortly if that is what Turkmenbashi desires.


The closure of theatres, the circus and the philharmonic hall is indicative of a general decline in cultural, scientific and educational standards. Turkmenbashi has already shut the country's Academy of Sciences, downsized schools and colleges and sacked 10,000 teachers.


The National Library is in the process of being dismantled. Plans call for the building to be converted into a barracks for the Presidential Guard. The location was chosen for security reasons, as it stands next to the presidential palace, so the guards will be able to react promptly in an emergency.


Books by authors accused of "misrepresenting Turkmen history and distorting the glorious past of the Turkmen people" have been removed from libraries and destroyed.


Those describing any faults in the traditional Turkmen lifestyle or in the ethnic Turkmen community, or highlighting the benefits of Turkmenistan's accession to the Russian Empire, are routinely condemned as "untrue" and destroyed. Dozens of Turkmen authors and historians have been banned, including Berdy Kerbabaev, author of a famous historical trilogy Decisive Move.


The president has called the 21st century a "golden era for Turkmen", insisting that it will be a turning-point in the history of the nation. The question, however, is whether there is any room in this golden era for culture.


Nazik Ataeva is a pseudonym of a journalist in Turkmenistan.