Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Turkmenistan: Good as Gold
The extent of the grip which Turkmen president Saparmurad Niazov has on his country has been highlighted by a clampdown some of his officials have instituted on the basis of a few off-the-cuff remarks he made.
In an absurd interpretation of a harmless observation made by the president, universities have started turning away students who have gold crowns - a common sight in most of the post-Soviet countries.
The affair began on April 5 when the president - generally known as Turkmenbashi or "Leader of the Turkmen" - showed up for a ceremony at the Niazov Agricultural University, one of the many institutions in Turkmenistan named after him. After a female student finished reading out a speech, the president turned to her and delivered an impromptu discourse on the state of Turkmenistan's teeth.
"Gold teeth don't look good on young people," he said. "White teeth show that a person is healthy. Ask the minister of health, he's a dentist. He'll give you good white ones."
The next morning, lecturing staff were waiting at the university gates as the students arrived - to check them for gold teeth. Those found with incriminating dentistry were ordered to go to the central dental clinic and not to attend classes until they had acquired white crowns.
"What right do they have to look in my mouth?" asked Aina, a student at the university. "It is so belittling when they stop me at the doors of the lecture theatre to check my teeth as if I were a thoroughbred horse, and decide whether I should go to classes or be sent to a dentist."
The campaign quickly spread to other higher education institutions in Ashgabat. Faculty heads at Turkmen State University addressed students on April 7 to inform them that gold teeth should be replaced as quickly as possible, and threatened to expel anyone who refused to do so.
A member of the government committee that oversees higher education in Turkmenistan defended the new policy, suggesting that it represented a new ideological trend rather than an aesthetic whim, and citing the Rukhnama - the president's philosophical treatise which is required reading in schools and even mosques.
"It makes no difference to the president how our young people look," said the official. "The point is that the Rukhnama states that young people should be tidy, diligent and healthy. The time has come to reject vestiges of the past."
Many university staff are extremely uncomfortable at being forced to implement what is only the latest in a series of arbitrary rulings. Since February this year, students have also been prohibited from growing beards or moustaches and wearing earrings.
"I have worked here a long time. My students respect me and I respect them," said a senior academic at the agricultural university, who asked to remain anonymous. "But for some time now I have found it difficult to look them in the eye because of absurd new regulations, and now I have to inspect their mouths. It's degrading for all of us."
A former senior staff member at the Turkmen State University - who again requested anonymity - said the strange campaign exemplified how officials will do anything to curry favour with the president.
"It is possible that President Niazov didn't want his comments to lead to this, but he has created a system of government in which the competence of a civil servant is judged on whether he is prepared to act, visibly and literally, on every one of the president's whims, without a specific order having to be issued," he told IWPR. "In Turkmenistan anything uttered by the president carries the force of an unwritten law."
Gold teeth are especially common in the poorer rural areas from which three-quarters of students come. The crowns are made necessary not only by bad dental care, but also by a tradition where they are seen as a symbol of wealth, and young women make more eligible brides if they have a mouthful of gold.
The cost of replacing them will be a further burden to families that have already made large sacrifices so that their children can attend university.
Guljemal, whose son is a student, told IWPR that she already had considerable debts from having to pay a bribe simply to get him into higher education.
"Today he came home and told me he can't go to university any more. He has two gold molars, and unless he smiles they aren't visible, but they insist he has them taken out. It is very expensive to replace gold teeth with ceramic ones," she said. "Now we will have to take out another loan, because my husband thinks our son should have an education at any price. He's our only child."
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