Updated: Aug 28, 2019
By: Calum Turnbull
In 1992 the Congress of People’s Deputies of Turkmenistan convened for the first time in the capital Ashgabat. A rump of the old Turkmen Supreme Soviet, the new congress was suddenly free to pursue policy and ideology without having to seek Moscow’s approval.
This important milestone in Turkmenistan’s history gave way to a hope in the West that Turkmenistan would form part of a chain of liberal democracies emerging out of the ruins of Soviet communism.
Alas, any such ambitions were quickly disavowed. The first piece of legislation passed by the Congress of Deputies was to authorise the unlimited production of state portraits of Turkmenistan’s president; Saparmurat Niyazov (Denison, 2010, p89).
With this foundational act the course of Turkmenistan’s politics was set. Over the next decade the state of Turkmenistan was reconstructed around a cult of personality that rivalled the likes of Gaddafi’s Libya and Kim’s North Korea.
If despotic autocracies were measured in gold reproductions of their leaders, then Turkmenistan leaves everyone else in the dust.
Turkmenistan in the USSR
At the time of independence, Turkmenistan found itself in a peculiar position. The country had always languished as a backwater of the Soviet Union with the country’s immense natural resources being extracted for the good of the Soviet people, and little wealth remaining in the country (Reuters 2007).
With independence came control of the nation’s resources, owned and operated by the state. It also meant that in the game of musical chairs that was communist party politics, the music had suddenly stopped. It was a career bureaucrat that just happened to be the closest to the chair.
With humble beginnings as an engineer at a power plant, Saparmurat Niyazov soon made the transition into a communist apparatchik during the 1970s. In 1985 he was appointed as the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Turkmenistan SSR after the resignation of his scandal-prone predecessor.
Over the next seven years, Niyazov toed the party line, gaining a reputation was one of the most hard-line regional governors of the Soviet Union. Even as the end was near, Niyazov was one of the few that backed a Soviet takeover of the Russian parliament in 1991.
The coup attempt failed, and precipitated the dissolution of the USSR later that same year. Suddenly jettisoned from the USSR, Turkmenistan’s politics quickly reformulated around clan-hierarchies and the Supreme Soviet. At the time of Turkmenistan’s independence, the Supreme Soviet declared Niyazov the president of the republic.
Niyazov was now the leader of a nation without nationalism. Where much of the other former Soviet republics had gone through a period of national awakening as the grip of Soviet power waned, Niyazov’s government had pressed on with the communist project.
Now with the collapse of the USSR, Turkmenistan needed to find a new narrative to anchor its newly found independence (Denison, 2010, p90). Niyazov quickly rose to the occasion and secured his hold on power in independent Turkmenistan.
The newly self-styled ‘Turkmenbashi’, father of all Turkmen, went through a rebrand. Gone were the days of conservative Soviet-style leadership, now was the time of unbridled anti-Soviet populism. Condemning the days of Soviet exploitation, Niyazov was quick to utilize Turkmenistan’s vast deposits of natural resources.
In 1993 Niyazov proclaimed that natural gas, water, electricity and salt would be free for all citizens for ten years (a policy he would go onto extend until 2030). However, it seems this policy has ended as of 2017.
Not an unfathomable feat for a nation who is second only to Russia among the former-USSR gas producing nations (NBC, 2006). What’s more, gas was exported abroad at an enormous scale flooding the government’s coffers.
Ashgabat - The Capital of Turkmenistan
With the funds, Niyazov sought to turn his capital Ashgabat, once a backwater of the Soviet Union, into a glistening metropolis. Entire neighbourhoods were bulldozed and replaced with marble pillared apartments and broad leafy boulevards. Although breathtaking, the result was a housing crisis as “they were, in their deluxe absurdity, unaffordable” (The New Yorker, 2007).
Turkmenbashi’s other great nation-building projects also seemed to fall flat. Hoping to change the inhospitable landscape of Turkmenistan’s steppe, he ordered the creation of a vast forest to extend around the capital city and beyond.
Tens of thousands of trees were planted, many withering under the harsh sun (The New Yorker, 2007). A sea of dead trees a stark reminder of just how hard Turkmenistan’s climate can be.
Cult of Personality
Niyazov also sought more creative means of disposing of Turkmenistan’s vast wealth. One notorious fixation is that of gold statues, particularly ones depicting himself. Littering Ashgabat during his reign, the Turkmenbashi would create physical reminders of his greatness for all his subjects to admire.
Where all other notable figures, legendary heroes and spiritual leaders are enshrined in bronze, it is Niyazov alone that was gilded in the shiny metal - gold.
Some notable examples of these golden reproductions include a child-aged Niyazov sitting on his mother’s knee. Even though Niyazov would rename April after his mother, it is only Turkmenbashi that gets the gold-standard treatment, as his mother is in bronze (The New Yorker 2006).
Another 15-metre-high golden statue has Niyazov, back to a billowing flag (also gold) with arms outstretched to the sky. What takes this golden statue to the next level is its placement on top of the 75m tall ‘Arch of Neutrality’; a huge marble plinth in the style of some kind of neo-futurist Soviet spaceship (The New Yorker 2007).
Taller than most of Ashgabat's other buildings, it ensures that Niyazov towers over the city’s residents as a kind of gaudy panopticon. The final flourish? The statue rotates to face the sun.
Niyazov’s cartoonish megalomania isn’t just an aesthetic either. He was also known for mandating some of the strangest bans of modern history.
Beards, ballet, playing the radio in cars, video games, and golden capped teeth (evidently a waste of useful building material) were all banned during his reign. In most instances little or no explanation was provided for these bans other than that they came directly from the Turkmenbashi himself (BBC 2004).
This was an annual event dressed up like the conferences of the USSR or People’s Republic of China. Delegates and observers were invited to attend, but instead of clapping as legislation was announced the crowd were privileged enough to listen to praise of the Turkmenbashi. Sitting on the dais at the front of the audience, notable entities would walk onto the stage to thank and praise Niyazov to the loud applause of a captive audience (ABC 2006).
The Ruhnama, as national book allegedly written by the president himself, akin to Mao’s Little Red Book, the Ruhnama is a semi-biographical work filled with sage-like teachings and Turkic mysticism.
Its crux is the life and teaching of Oguz Khan, the great historical leader of Turkemnistan, and his latter-day reincarnation in the form of Niyazov.
Though the book has been described as a “chloroform in print” (The New Yorker 2007) it has since been published in thirty languages. It is also required reading for the civil service, in universities and schools, and for anyone wishing to attain a driver’s license.
Even doctor’s in hospitals have to set aside time to read the Ruhnama, a practise that has been criticised as “the readings interrupted time better spent on patient care” (Denison, 2010, p89).
The Ruhnama, at least in the canon of Niyazov’s cult of personality, is third only to himself and his mother in importance. He has even arranged with Allah to ensure anyone who reads the book three times will be sent to heaven. In addition, it has been compared to the Quran, which has seen much criticism in the Islamic world (The New Yorker 2007).
If that was not enough of an incentive to read Turkmenistan’s best-seller, there is also a large animatronic statue in Ashgabat of the book, which opens at a set time every night with an image of Turkmenbashi’s face projected onto the inside pages. The book’s title has also replaced the name for September, at least in the official lexicon of Turkmenistan.
Despite the strong hold on society, it was with some surprise that in 2002, Niyazov’s convoy was seen speeding towards the hospital after an alleged coup attempt.
Unharmed, Turkmenbashi blamed the failed coup on “Russian mercenaries” and Turkmenistan’s foreign minister.
Western commentators suggest that it was more likely to be an internal coup, or even one orchestrated by criminal elements (The New York Times 2003).
Niyazov’s miraculous escape didn’t preserve his life for much longer. In late 2006 the Turkmenbashi dropped dead from heart failure at the age of 66. Time Magazine was quick to declare Turkmenistan “a nation of orphans” as the father of all Turkmen passed (Time Magazine, 2006).
Niyazov was survived by an army of golden statues, and an estimated worth of $7 billion USD of funds held in banks across the globe (Time Magazine 2006). His successor to the post of president has even renovated the Arch of Neutrality.
Niyazov’s glistening figure now stands 20m taller and there is a restaurant under his feet (The Telegraph 2011).
You can still see him today, slowly rotating above the city of his own creation, where his legacy is still very much present.
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