Turkmenbashi Made President for Life

Niazov accepts yet another honour, but not everyone in Turkmenistan is celebrating.

Turkmenbashi Made President for Life

Niazov accepts yet another honour, but not everyone in Turkmenistan is celebrating.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Turkmenistan's authoritarian president, Saparmurat Niazov, has been appointed head of state for the rest of his life - and has promptly renamed the months of the year after himself and his family.

Niazov - who likes to be called Turkmenbashi, Father of all Turkmens - was selected at a session of the Khalk Maslakhaty, or people's council, on August 8 in Turkmenabat, formerly known as Chardjou, in the east of the country.

A 1999 law had given Turkmenbashi the right to remain in his post indefinitely but with provision for future elections, which the president had suggested could be held sometime between 2008 and 2010. The new life status awarded by the council rules out all possibility of future polls.

"With long and excited applause, delegates to the supreme governmental body literally forced Niazov to accept the title of president for life," the official news bulletins claimed.

However, not all of Turkmenbashi's people are so enthusiastic. The people's council was preceded by a demonstration of more than 200 women outside the presidential palace in Ashgabat, in protest against policies they claim have made them destitute.

"We want to give a letter to the president. Does he not know what is happening in his country? We are tired of poverty," one demonstrator said.

"Our husbands and children cannot find work, in many families four or five of the men are unemployed, and farming or minor trading is impossible due to the lack of resources and corrupt officials."

Their protest appeared to fall on deaf ears, as the people's council had other vital issues to address, including the decision to award Niazov the title of "Hero of Turkmenistan" for the third time.

Last year, the council eagerly approved a programme for the spiritual revival of the Turkmen people, as laid down in the "great work of Turkmenbashi", a code of laws and morals entitled Rukhnama, for which the president was awarded the title of "prophet".

This time, Turkmenbashi presented another gift to his people, opening the council with a presentation of his latest poetry collection entitled "Long May My Native People Prosper". He was duly awarded the title of "Great Writer of Turkmenistan".

In addition a presidential decree created a new mechanism "for selecting and assigning staff". In order to cleanse the republic of "filth and uncleanliness", candidates applying to work at state institutions will now have their genealogical records checked back three generations, ensuring that top posts will only be filled by those deemed to be "most worthy".

As part of his plan to return Turkmens to their roots, Turkmenbashi has also renamed the months and days. "Does it not make sense to connect the names to our history and things that are sacred to us?" he asked. "We have found a new destiny, and so let the months be our own."

Under Niazov's proposal, January will now be called - wait for it - "Turkmenbashi", while February will be named after the national flag. March will be called "Navruz", and April "Gurbansoltan-edje" in honour of the president's mother. May will be named after the Turkmen poet Makhtumkuli, June will be called "Oguz" in honour of a military leader, and July will be called "Gorkut" after the hero of the epic Gorkut-Ata. August will be called "Alp-Arslan", after the ancient Turkmen commander, September will be "Rukhnama", after the president's book, October will be called Independence and November will be called "Sultan Sanjar", after another historical figure. December has been renamed the Month of Neutrality.

Monday is to be renamed Main Day, Tuesday Young Day, Wednesday Prosperous Day and Thursday is Blessed Day. Friday will not change, while Sunday will be Day of Rest. Niazov said Saturday would now be called "rukh", or soul. As a result, he said, Turkmens would think about their spiritual health instead of drinking and gossiping and would "devote their leisure time to lofty thoughts and aspirations".

In spite of this, ordinary Turkmens seem to have other things on their minds. There were further disturbances at Bezmein, a satellite town of Ashgabat, before a presidential visit on August 6, where three of many enormous portraits of Turkmenbashi were set on fire. This followed similar incidents of burning Niazov's public portrait back in June.

Such unrest seems at odds with the "golden age" the president has promised his people, yet it was not allowed to interfere with the Khalk Maslakhty, which was portrayed as an event of enormous historical significance.

The vandalism of his official portraits and the women's protests suggest not everyone shares this rosy view. Despite the regime's efforts to paint an idyllic picture of prosperity and wealth, it is becoming more and more difficult to disguise the harsher reality of Turkmenistan life.

Nyazik Ataeva is a pseudonym for a journalist in Ashgabat

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