Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Cult of Niyazov

The cult of personality surrounding Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov resembles Soviet-era worship of Lenin and Stalin.
By Konstantin Arzybov

Walk anywhere in Turkmenistan, and you can't avoid the image of President Saparmurat Niyazov. The slogan "Khalk, Vatan, Turkmenbashi" - " One People, One Motherland, One Leader of the Turkmen" - decorates almost every street in the republic and dominates every public gathering.

Niyazov's head sits proudly on most office buildings, billboards and parade floats. Streets and towns throughout the republic have been renamed in his honour.

In 1999, Turkmenistan's ruling elite voted Niyazov president for life. The capital city, Ashgabad, is home to Niyazov's latest palace, resplendent with glittering domes, fountains and a towering column crowned by a revolving golden statue of the head of state.

"All I wanted was a small, cozy house," Niyazov said, but it seems he was over-ruled by the Turkmenistan parliament.

The president, a familiar face in the Soviet corridors of power, rose through the ranks to become Chairman of the Supreme Soviet in 1990. By the time he was elected president of Turkmenistan, no other member of the Turkmen ruling elite had held the reins of state as long as he.

In 1991, Turkmenistan voted for independence and Niyazov secured the presidency with 99.5 per cent of the vote. He was the only candidate.

The republic's new constitution declared the state a democracy. But virtually all traces of civil society were crushed in the early 1990s. Political and religious associations, which had flourished in the twilight of the Soviet era, were undermined and repressed.

Many of their leaders were fobbed off with lucrative government positions and have since become staunch supporters of the status quo. Incentives such as dachas, free health care, free cars and financial handouts bought quiescence.

A strict entry visa system, enlarged last year to include nationals from former Soviet countries, is employed by the Niyazov government to control not only immigration but also the comings and goings of Turkmenistan citizens. The former foreign minister, Avdy Kuliev, for example, a potential opponent to Niyazov, has been prevented from returning to the country and now lives in exile abroad.

The Niyazov government has retained the structure of the former Soviet security service, the KGB, and in fact increased the organisation's staff.

It would be going too far to call Turkmenistan a police state. But it's not a democracy either. Although the country has regular general elections, the inconvenience of opposition candidates is usually avoided. Likewise once in office, the parliament generally passes Niyazov's decrees unanimously. Often dozens of laws are voted through in a single day with little or no discussion. The president also appoints virtually all regional governors, city mayors and local authority leaders.

Niyazov's declared aim is to create a kind of Kuwait in Turkmenistan, built on the proceeds of the country's vast natural gas reserves. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in recent years on the ambitious building projects in Ashgabad. Besides the Turkmenbashi palace, there is a new and vast Palace of Congress, dozens of hotels, arches, spires and shopping centres.

The personality cult around the Turkmen leader has started to gall the West. Even the president himself says things may have gone too far. "I admit there are too many portraits, pictures and monuments," Niyavoz said in an interview. "I don't take any pleasure in it, but that is the peoples' mentality, they demand it."

The monuments and portraits, the huge rings embellishing the president's fingers - all have become such an integral part of the landscape that people no longer pay them any attention.

The 21st century, says Niyazov, will be "the golden age of the Turkmen people." Blessed with vast reserves of oil and gas, a promising electricity generating industry, a small and almost ethnically homogenous population and peaceful relations with her neighbouring states, Niyazov could well be right.

Although the majority of Turkmenistan's 4.2 million inhabitants have yet to reap the financial benefit promised by this new Central Asian Kuwait, Niyazov still appears to enjoy genuine popular support. Dissent in Turkmenistan remains muted, but some grumbles can be heard. Should Niyazov fail to deliver the promised "golden age" the popularity he currently enjoys may begin to disintegrate.

Konstantin Arzybov is pseudonym for a journalist in Ashgabad.