Turkmenbashi and His Turkmenistan

Article excerpt

AMONG the republics of the former Soviet Union, Turkmenistan, with a population approaching five million, attracts particular attention from several standpoints. It has one of the largest gas reserves in the world; unusually high GDP growth rates (almost 20 per cent in 2002); its government provides exceptional social benefits--free gas, water and electricity, housing subsidies and very low public transportation fees. As a result, Turkmenistan enjoys an unusually calm socio-political situation, which particularly stands out against the rise of Islamic radicalism in other Central Asian republics. And finally, based on its proclaimed neutral status, Turkmenistan refrains from geopolitical games in Central Asia, such as the 'Great Game' for regional hegemony and natural resources between the USA, Russia, Iran and China. (See Contemporary Review. December 2001.)

Turkmenistan has also been a source of bemusement to the outside world because of the eccentric exploits of its president, Saparmurat Niazov, officially known as Turkmenbashi (literally, 'Chief of the Turkmen'), whose personality cult rivals that of Saddam Hussein. Niazov was unanimously approved as president for life by the Turkmen National Assembly on 28 December 1999. This leads to a logical question: how does he manage to ensure political stability and economic growth in the absence of democratic institutions, in keeping with his statement that Turkmen society is not ready to introduce a multi-party system?

Absolutism and Spiritual Guidance

The main principle is the principle of absolutism. As the head of executive power, Turkmenbashi tries to manage personally all spheres of social life. 'Our society is not mature enough for a civilized multi-party system, and there are no people psychologically or financially prepared to become owners of big factories', Niazov has said, adding that he will move Turkmenistan towards democracy, but slowly, only after 'not one Turkmen is left complaining about going without sausage and bread for a day'.

Lately, for instance, he signed a decree about a twofold increase of pensions and allowances since 1 May 2003. According to another recent decree, the size of salaries of workers and students' allowances were raised twice as well. Niazov signed a decree on 22 January 2003 raising to 1.5 million manat ($290 at the official exchange rate) the average monthly salary of government employees, which is very high by regional standards, compared to the $50 average in Uzbekistan and $70 in Azerbaijan.

Political life in the country is based on the activity of only one party, the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, headed by Niazov, which for all intents and purposes is nothing more than the former Communist Party of Turkmenistan. There are more political slogans and propaganda messages now than there were in the old Soviet days, such as 'Halk, Vatan, Beyuk Turkmenbashi' ('People, Motherland, Turkmenbashi the Great') and 'XXI Asyr Turkmenin Altyn Asyry" ('21st Century is Turkmen Golden Century').

Ashgabat means the 'City of Love' in the Farsi (Persian) language. The drive into the capital Ashgabat from Turkmenbashi airport goes along Turkmenbashi Avenue, and passes by Turkmenbashi Stadium. On the streets of Ashgabat one sees banners, portraits and statues of Turkmenbashi--almost every building has a wall-sized picture of him on the facade, not to mention the ports, towns and streets which have been renamed after this 'greatly beloved' leader. There are an estimated 2000 statues of him in the country. A colossal golden statue in Ashgabat's Neutrality Square is mounted onto a revolving tower more than 100 metres high, which turns around all the time, making Turkmenbashi appear to summon the sun at dawn and bid it farewell at dusk.

When a 670-lb meteorite landed in Turkmenistan in 1999, Turkmen scientists named it after Turkmenbashi. After a petition by the 'workers of the city', the Caspian port of Krasnovodsk was renamed Turkmenbashi. …