Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Turkmen President's Prophet Motive
The personality cult around President Sapamurat Niyazov has become a feature of Turkmen daily life. But the wave of flattery and unbending adulation has reached such levels in the past month that even the man who calls himself Turkmenbashi, the 'father of the Turkmen', has seen fit to cool the ardour of his admirers.
The trouble started in the lead up to the sixth conference of the Humanitarian Association of Turkmen, which promotes the country's national heritage. Delegates from 23 countries descended on the capital Ashgabat to discuss the organisation's work.
On the eve of the event, two of the country's leading dailies published an article by Kakamurad Ballyev, the president's press secretary, which delineated the president's future role as a prophet, a role which the delegates were about to confer on the president.
Not that anyone has the right to elevate Niyazov, or anyone, to the status of prophet. It seems that the president's inner circle had simply run out of titles for their leader who, in addition to being 'Father of the Turkmen', is 'Leader of the Nation' and 'Spiritual Leader'.
"Sapamurat Turkmenbashi is a national prophet, sent to the Turkmen people in the third millennium," wrote Ballyev, who also runs the state information agency and a daily newspaper. The article explains how the elevation is a logical consequence for the man who singlehandedly "laid down the political foundations of the state as well as the economic structure, foreign policy and legal basis for the Turkmen nation".
The piece which continues to gush forth about Niyazov's genius seemed to have been written without the approval of the president. But his boss did not take the flattery graciously this time. The president slammed his press secretary's initiative.
"Various names are forced on me," Niyazov told the conference delegates. "I am even called 'The Prophet'. All of this is a hindrance. I'm afraid to make a speech, since those words become yet another reason for praise."
Whether delegates didn't hear him or whether they decided not to take him at his word, they elected Niyazov life president of their association, giving him a standing ovation. A pronouncement was then made on behalf of the world's 24 million Turkmen that Niyazov be awarded another title - 'Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great'.
Once the praise had started to flow there seemed no stopping it. But after Ballyev's "The Word of the Prophet" article was reprinted in a number of Turkmen papers, it soon gained the attention of the Turkmen disapora abroad and earned their scathing criticism.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty poked fun at the pomposity of the gesture which was also construed as being blasphemous since, according to Islam, the last prophet was Mohammed and anyone who endows himself with the title is debasing the religion.
At home, the public have grown used to their president's egotism and also wary of the penalties for crossing him. Many privately expressed shock at this latest attempt to lionise Niyazov, dismissing Ballyev's scheme as idiotic.
Niyazov tried to take control of the situation and called an extended session of his cabinet. They were joined by heads of media organizations, all of which are state-controlled and directly accountable to the president.
He then unleashed his fury on those present, accusing them of lacking professionalism and creativity. The heaviest criticism was reserved for Ballyev. He pointed his press secretary's attention to the embarrassingly blasphemous implications of his proposal and the serious damage it could cause to the president's relations with Muslim countries.
Niyazov further upbraided his journalists for appearing as if they had nothing better to do than extoll his virtues, "What are you teaching people? That there's nobody in the world except me? That it is me who does everything? This should be stopped!"
Whatever the president says, the press understand that its role is to repeatedly eulogise him. So it was not a surprise that after his denunciation, press coverage of Niyazov's meeting with his cabinet included customary adulation. The paper Turkmenistan managed three photos and dozens of references to their esteemed Saparmurat the Great, Father of the Turkmen.
Konstantin Arzybov is a pseudonym of a journalist in Turkmenistan
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight