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Mixed Reaction to Turkmen Birthday Bash

Is the president acquiescent in a growing personality cult?
Five months after Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov was elected president of Turkmenistan, observers are still divided about whether he is serious about pursuing major reforms or is about to revert to the dictatorial style of his predecessor Saparmurat Niazov.

Lavish celebrations held around Berdymuhammedov’s 50th birthday on June 28 have left analysts concerned that a new personality cult is taking hold.

However, some local people interviewed by IWPR said the birthday celebrations were more muted than those held in Niazov’s time, so it is too early to see Berdymuhammedov as simply a repeat version of Turkmenbashi – the Leader of the Turkmen – as Niazov styled himself.

There were certainly many echoes of the old regime in evidence. Government ministries, agencies and firms sent long telegrams in praise of the president and held outdoor feasts in towns and villages. The newspapers were full of letters from “ordinary workers, pensioners and schoolchildren” praising the achievements of “our dear president” since he arrived in office.

To mark the president’s birthday, the government published a biography and the state news agency produced a book called “Elected and Empowered by the People”.

The celebrations culminated with a meeting of parliament, the Mejlis, which bestowed the Order of the Homeland on Berdymuhammedov. This decoration, which comes in the shape of a diamond-encrusted and gold medal and gold chain, can only be granted to presidents, and only once.

Parliament said that the award was in recognition of Berdymuhammedov’s contribution to “political, economic and cultural prosperity” and “the development of democracy” in Turkmenistan, but perhaps significantly, also for maintaining law and order and “social stability and cohesion”.

The country’s central bank also issued commemorative gold and silver coins bearing Berdymuhammedov’s image, which were produced specially by Britain’s Royal Mint.

Although the celebrations must have been planned well in advance, the president tried to distance himself from responsibility through ambivalent remarks.

“As an individual and as a citizen, I feel grateful, but as head of state I have no right to give orders on matters that concern me personally,” he said.

Again, this is an uncomfortable reminder of the past. Niazov periodically called on his people to stop praising him – although this appeared to be the one order his officials consistently disobeyed.

In another visible replication of Niazov’s once-ubiquitous presence, portraits of Berdymuhammedov have sprung up all over the place, in offices and as street posters.

While some argue that the president could easily stop the growth of a new personality cult, others say his entourage are mostly to blame.

“Of course the court sycophants are trying to get everything back to normal, so that everything reverts to the way it was under Turkmenbashi,” said a lecturer at Turkmenistan’s State University. “They write books about him and hang a gold chain around his neck.

“The officials want everything to go back to the old ways - they want to bow down and kiss the president’s hand – and keep on stealing. I think the personality cult – this new one as well as the old one one – is cultivated by officials at the highest level trying to use flattery and servility to stay in their cushy positions for as long as possible.”

Some people praised the celebrations for being less over-the-top than those that took place during Niazov’s 16-year rule.

A schoolteacher in the eastern city of Turkmenabad recalled how under Niazov, teaching staff and children were forced to turn out for national holidays at any time of year.

“In the height of summer the children would faint while in winter they froze as they stood for hours by the side of the road holding flags and posters and waiting for the president to drive by,” he said.

On this occasion, Berdymuhammedov’s birthday fell during the summer break, but neither teachers nor children were called back to participate in official celebrations. All that happened was that the head teacher sent a congratulatory telegram.

“I think this approach to celebrating the president’s birthday is much more sensible and human,” said the teacher.

The university lecturer agreed that the general mood was beginning to be more normal, with less of the adulation that used to accompany media coverage of Niazov’s activities.

“Instead of showing endless songs and dances in praise of Turkmenbashi, the television channels have at last begun showing news that’s interesting to watch. [Russian and Kazak presidents] Putin and Nazarbaev visit our country, or our president goes somewhere,” he said.

“On one occasion I couldn’t believe my eyes - the deputy chairman of Siemens was speaking on Turkmen television. I haven’t seen a foreigner talking on our TV channels for at least ten years.”

(Names of interviewees have been withheld out of concern for their security.)

Maksat Alikperov is the pseudonym of a Turkmen journalist.

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