OPED27 Turkmenbashi - No laughing matter

Who or what is Turkmenbashi? Well, let's see - Turkmenbashi is a Caspian Sea port city, the world's largest rug (three hundred square meters), a 670-lb meteorite, an airport in Ashkhabad (Turkmenistan), a month of the year (formerly known as January), a stadium, an avenue, an estimated 2 to 10 thousand statues, countless portraits.... and a man - Sapamurat Niyazov, "Perpetual President" of Turkmenistan,   also known as Turkmenbashi, "Father of all Turkmen".

Formerly a part of the Soviet Union, the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic declared independence in October 1991, thus creating the nation of Turkmenistan. Niyazov, Turkmen Communist party chief for ten years then elected President of the Republic in 1990, became the President of Turkmenistan. In 1992 he was re-elected with 99.5% of the vote. Then, in a 1994 referendum that passed with 99% of the vote his presidency was extended to 2002. President Niyazov was unanimously approved as president for life by the National Assembly on 28 December 1999. They also gave him the title of Turkmenbashi, "Father Of All Turkmen"

In Turkmenistan the cult of personality has been raised to an art form:

In spite of all this praise, Turkmenbashi remains a modest man. About the many imposing palaces that have been built for him he has said, "All I wanted was a small, cozy, house but Parliament overruled me." He has criticized journalists for excessively praising him. When Parliament made him President-For-Life he said, "I want to say, honestly, that in Turkmenistan the people respect me so much I can not sleep." Though he begged the parliament not to give him any more medals or titles he eventually gave way and accepted them to fulfill "the will of the people."

The total and utter ridiculousness of this situation makes an observer want to smile. But that is an unfortunate reaction. The buffoonery masks repression and misrule, under which the vast majority of Turkmenistan's citizens live a life of grinding poverty, while the country has vast reserves of natural gas and is the world's tenth largest producer of cotton. While the masses are hungry, Turkmenbashi spends money on grandiose projects (a 10 meter high gold-plated statue of Turkmenbashi atop a 72 meter tall tower surrounded by fountains, ornate palaces, Berzengi - a hotel and business center in the desert outside Ashkhabad that has 22 empty 5-star hotels built completely from imported materials), jails any opposition (some in psychiatric wards), has a tame and muzzled press, etc. As there are shortages of staples and hunger increases, Turkmenbashi has said, "Anyone who complains about going without sausage or bread for a day is not a Turkmen."
Turkmenbashi has said that he will move Turkmenistan towards democracy, but slowly. "Our society is not yet mature enough for a civilized multiparty system. there are no people psychologically or financially prepared to become owners of big factories." This dictator needs to be toppled, as do his statues, for the Turkmen to have any hope of progress.

© SNi 09/06/02