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President Paints New Picture of Turkmenistan

Turkmenbashi takes down a number of official portraits after international community criticises his personality cult.
By Murad Novruzov

Turkmenistan’s mercurial president appears to be playing down his notorious personality cult in the wake of two damning international reports, but critics say it is no more than a cosmetic gesture.

On May 21 and 22, Ashgabat residents were surprised to see dozens of the ubiquitous portraits of President Saparmurat Niazov being taken down from their places all over the capital.

The authorities would not comment on why they were being removed, but confirmed that a series of “political posters” would take the place of the portraits at a later date.

However, sources claim that the order to remove the paintings came right from the very top.

Portraits and statues of Niazov, who likes to be called Turkmenbashi or “Leader of the Turkmen”, can be seen all over the former Soviet republic he has ruled since it gained its independence in 1991.

The president is believed to have blamed a number of high-ranking officials for being “over-zealous” in their praise by commissioning too many portraits, hence the order to take some out of public view.

Local analysts see the decision as a reaction to a May 17 report by the US State Department which described Turkmenistan as a “totalitarian state” with complete cult of personality around the president and condemned its human rights record. The Helsinki Federation published another critical report not long after.

Speculation that Niazov is genuinely trying to make concessions to the international community was greeted with scorn by many Ashgabat residents.

Ashgabat pensioner Jennet-eje spoke for many when she said, “How are we supposed to notice if a few paintings have gone? He is everywhere! If a portrait is removed from one building, so what? Take a look around. He remains on all the others.”

And one opposition activist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “In the light of Niazov’s absolute dominance over state ideology - and the substitution of our national and cultural values with ideas from his book the Ruhnama - it is absurd to speak of such measures as the removal of some portraits as a step away from the personality cult.

“All of this took years to create, and by taking down a few paintings we won’t get rid of the problems in our society – the statues, the eulogising and the practice of re-writing history to credit the current president of our country,” he added.

Some observers believe that these measures will not be enough to deflect international attention – but recognise that such a reaction is a regular Turkmenbashi tactic, designed to give the impression that he is acting on concerns from abroad.

Others accuse the president of false modesty. “On many occasions, the president has asked the mass media not to praise him. And what happens? The very next day, even more articles were printed, praising the ‘wise’ and ‘great’ Turkmenbashi,” said one angry Ashgabat resident.

“It was the same last year when the parliament attempted to declare Turkmenbashi president for life, against all his apparent protests. It is a peculiar kind of cunning, to achieve one’s aims by declaring ‘I don’t want this’.

“But in reality, the power of our president is so absolute and strong that none of his officials would dare to do anything without his consent.”

A series of increasingly outlandish decrees – including the banning of ballet and goatee beards, and the president’s decision to rename months of the year after himself and his mother – and concerns over human rights abuses have focused international attention on the oil- and gas-rich state.

However, Turkmenbashi rejects this vision of his state, telling foreign diplomats present at the recent opening of a paper factory that “no one is persecuted in the country, no one is imprisoned for their beliefs and political attitudes”.

Murad Novruzov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Ashgabat

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