A PLANE flight away from the political chaos now roiling in
Russia and a boat ride across the Caspian Sea from the ethnic wars
that plague the Caucasus, the former Soviet Central Asian republic
of Turkmenistan basks in sunny stability.
The tree-lined streets of Ashkhabad, a modest city of two- and
three-story buildings, are clean and tranquil, with barely a hint
of the menace that lurks on every Moscow corner. The Russian and
Ukrainian wives of Army officers shopping in the market evince no
fear of the majority Turkmens, a nomadic people who have roamed
this desert land for centuries.
Aside from its traditional bazaars, there is no evidence in
Turkmenistan of the free-market tumult of Russia's private shops
and sidewalk kiosks. The drab state-run stores still operate here,
offering a minimum of basic goods but at prices a tenth of those in
Russia, subsidized by the revenues from Turkmenistan's rich
reserves of oil and gas.
Presiding over this island of calm is the genial, round-faced
President of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, one of a handful of
Central Asian Communist leaders who have managed to survive the
transition from the Soviet Union to independence. Under his rule,
Turkmenistan is a curious cross between the Soviet Union of Leonid
Brezhnev and an Arab sheikhdom in the Persian Gulf.
The Turkmen president arrived in the United States this week on
an unofficial visit aimed at convincing American businessmen and
politicians that his brand of slow economic reform without
political democracy is working. Stung by charges that
Turkmenistan's tiny opposition has been suppressed, Mr. Niyazov
counters that the only alternative to his relatively benign
authoritarianism is the kind of civil war that has torn apart the
neighboring former Soviet republic of Tajikistan.
However a Western audience might respond to his claims, it was
almost impossible to find anyone to demur in four days of travel
around this sparsely populated expanse of sand dunes.
"No war and we have bread," says Rahman, a taxi driver in the
city of Chardzhou, explaining why he supports Niyazov. "It's not
like Tajikistan where they are shooting each other."
The price of stability is the absence of political pluralism.
The Communist Party, which Niyazov headed since 1985, remains in
place, having only changed its name to the Democratic Party of
A minor-league cult of personality is rapidly being built around
the president. Niyazov's smiling visage, wavy silver hair in place,
graces government offices and streetside billboards, spaces
previously occupied by Communist slogans and pictures of Soviet
Also reminiscent of the Soviet era is the systematic suppression
and harassment of the small opposition movement, Agzybirlik. US
officials here say that Niyazov, in his Washington visit, will not
be received by any senior Clinton administration official unless he
gives permission for three activists to attend a human rights
conference in Wisconsin.
"It's worse now than under the Brezhnev regime," says
Mukhamedmurad Salamatov, editor of Dayanch, the only independent
journal here and one of the three invitees. He has been tried three
times, resulting in fines, for various alleged offenses. After
several issues of his journal were published in Moscow but
confiscated upon arrival here, "my experiment in a free press has
finished," he says.
In a three-hour near-monologue with a small group of
correspondents last week at his sandstone palace, Niyazov went to
great lengths to defend himself against Western criticism.
"Why should I create something just so you can call me a
democrat," he asks rhetorically. "The society is not yet ripe
enough for creation of political parties," he adds, arguing that
such changes must wait until economic reforms create a new class of
private owners and a new generation free of the communist