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

Turkmen “Sacred Text” Heads for Oblivion

President’s decision to unveil his own ideology marks another step away from the personality cult fostered by his predecessor.
By IWPR Central Asia
Turkmenistan’s president ruler has set out a new ideological framework for his isolated country, leading observers to conclude that his predecessor’s book, the Ruhnama, which was accorded near-sacred status, is about to be displaced.

President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov formally unveiled the new national ideology, entitled “A State for People”, on January 19.

The main goal of the ideology, he said, was a spiritual reawakening for society, a new sense of awareness based on a “national creative revival” and the education of a new generation of young people. He said it would contribute to the development of a secular society underpinned by the rule of law and market economic principles.

“I believe my main task is to protect human rights and freedoms, to ensure equality and the observance of laws by all citizens of the country, and to build a highly developed society,” said Berdymuhammedov.

The announcement of the new ideology has been seen as a sign that the regime is distancing itself from the eccentric policies and personality cult propagated by Berdymuhammedov’s predecessor, Saparmurat Niazov, who died in December 2006.

Under Niazov, the former Soviet republic became an increasingly closed society where people were force-fed a diet of propaganda in praise of Niazov’s alleged genius.

Resources were diverted towards lavish prestige projects glorifying the regime and its leader, including gold-plated statues of the man who styled himself Turkmenbashi or Leader of the Turkmen.

While “foreign” cultural influences brought in by the Soviets, including Russian literature, the opera and the ballet, were downgraded or closed down entirely, Niazov’s philosophical ruminations, the Ruhnama or Book of the Spirit became the obligatory text.

Extolled as the fount of wisdom on morality and ethics, the Ruhnama gathers together Niazov’s thoughts on Turkmen folklore, history and mythology in a compendium designed as a handbook to life. Under his rule, it became a mandatory subject in primary and secondary schools and in universities, and civil servants and others were tested on their knowledge of it.

The work was cited everywhere. Each day, before the main TV news programme, announcers would read out 20 pages from the “sacred book”. Officials fired for poor performance and pardoned criminals showed their repentance by placing their hands on copies of the Ruhnama.

The quasi-religious significance attached to the book jarred with the beliefs of a predominantly Muslim population, and the chief Islamic cleric was sacked after raising his voice against an order to place copies of the Ruhnama in the mosques, thus equating it with the Koran.

Berdymuhammedov has already signalled his distaste for some of the cultural excesses of the former regime, such as the disbandment of the national opera and ballet companies. In his January 19 speech, the president said his new ideology envisaged the revival of opera, ballet and circuses – forms of entertainment that Niazov regarded as “alien elements”.

Less obviously, Berdymuhammedov has also started dismantling the cult of the Ruhnama, observers say. Since his legitimacy stems from being the successor to Niazov, it will be difficult from him to perform a complete about-face on the regime’s symbolic centerpiece.

“The role of the ‘sacred book’ is decreasing substantially,” one observer from Ashgabat told IWPR. “People are now getting jobs in ideological [educational] institutes without having to pass exams on the Ruhnama. The book is mentioned far less often on radio and television, and the hours-long readings have become a thing of the past.”

Other observers report an atmosphere of “abandonment” at the numerous Ruhnama propaganda centres set up in towns and villages across Turkmenistan.

“The staff at the Ruhnama centres are in a state of uneasy expectation,” said one staff member. “Now that the authorities no longer hold any ceremonial events here, we’re afraid we will be closed down.”

He added somewhat forlornly, “We truly hope the Ruhnama will be replaced by another work written by the current president or by his scribes.”

A media analyst from the Dashoguz region in the north of the country said it was just a matter of time before the Ruhnama was consigned to oblivion.

“There is no point in Berdymuhammedov leaning on somebody else’s book and ideas as he tries to form his own ideology and personality cult,” he said.

However, some people complain that the new ideological direction outlined by Berdymuhammedov so far is lacking in substance.

“The president wants culture to become the instrument of a new ideology that does not yet exist in reality,” said one employee of an environmental organisation in Ashgabat.

A radio journalist also voiced strong doubts about the value and sincerity of the president’s change of course.

“Big deal!” he said. “They are restoring the opera, the circus and the Academy of Sciences, but are there any real changes?” he asked. “We don’t have any more freedom as a result.”

Despite the fact that Berdymuhammedov has lifted restrictions on people’s freedom of movement at home and subscription to some foreign publications is now allowed, the jails still host a good many political prisoners and the media remains strictly censored.

The government has shown it is determined to retain control over access to information, and has recently been clamping down on satellite television.

Turkmenistan counts as one the least free countries in the world in most international rankings.

Rights activists say the president’s call for ideological renewal will be taken more seriously when he makes real moves to allow democratic freedoms.

“The new ideology ought to be based on the creation of democratic institutions, if the president really yearns for societal renewal according to his declared principle of a ‘state for people’,” said a civil activist in the western Balkan region.

The media analyst from Dashoguz agreed, adding, “The government needs to move away from total control over society, to give people real freedom, permit an independent media and allow them to criticise the government, permit non-governmental organisations and in general allow everything that Turkmenbashi prohibited.”

A school head said he feared the new ideology would be much like the old cult, as it was being built on praise for Berdymuhammedov’s so-called “era of a great renaissance”.

“History is repeating itself,” the teacher claimed, “and the fact that one of the additional hours allotted for studying the Ruhnama has been removed from the school timetable does not fill me with optimism. It’s early to rejoice - the Ruhnama may simply be replaced by something else.”

But other observers in Turkmenistan are more optimistic, noting the broad support that the plan for cultural revival has won.

One singer said the president recently received a standing ovation at a gathering of the country’s intelligentsia when he outlined his vision of the future.

“When the president announced the new ideology at this meeting, the famous musician Solmaz Muhammedova thanked Berdymuhammedov for rescuing some of the people’s favourites from oblivion and we all stood up and applauded him,” he recalled.

An employee of the newspaper Nesil was similarly upbeat, saying, “Now everything will be different. The president has waited for the anniversary of Niazov’s death to pass, and a real transformation is about to start.”

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

More IWPR's Global Voices

Tajikistan’s Next President: No Surprises
Experts’ assumptions that the country’s leader Emomali Rahmon would nominate his son for this election are disproved.
The Belarus Awakening, as Seen from Georgia
The Belarus Awakening, as Seen from Georgia