x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Turkmen leader's cult of personality outlasts him

Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the new president, tore down symbols of his predecessor Turkmenbashi's excess - and is replacing them with new ones.

They started laying the foundations this month, setting to work among the white marble palaces of a showpiece new district in Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan.

What they are doing will shock those who hoped for change for the five million people of this long-suffering Caspian nation.

They are rebuilding the Arch of Neutrality, the infamous monument to President Saparmurat Niyazov, this century's most brutal and eccentric dictator. When Niyazov, or "Turkmenbashi, Father of all Turkmen," built it in 1998, he placed a 12-metre gold statue of himself at its pinnacle, set to revolve, so his face always caught the sun.

Its removal in August was heralded as a sign that his successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, was finally laying to rest Turkmenbashi's grotesque personality cult, four years after his death.

Diplomats already talk of "the gold statue era" as a nightmare from which Turkmenistan has awoken. But for many ordinary Turkmen, the cult lives on.

"Our ex-president was really a legendary character," a beaming, government-approved guide said during a tour of Ashgabat.

"Turkmenbashi was the first person in history who could unite the Turkmen people. That's why he's a hero for us."

"We are quite offended that foreigners think that we wanted to pull down the statue," she added. "It is only being moved. Berzengi's a bit higher than the rest of the city centre, so the Arch of Neutrality will now be seen from everywhere."

The new arch, now 90 metres high compared to 75 metres for the original, is not the only aspect of Turkmenbashi's rule which seemed like it was going away, only to return.

Turkmenbashi was certainly more colourful than his successor, but details revealed by WikiLeaks this month paint Mr Berdymukhamedov as a "vain, fastidious, vindictive … micromanager".

Ashgabat's pristine streets reflect a man so obsessively neat that when he was Turkmenbashi's personal dentist, he insisted his colleagues sport identical creases in their trousers.

He has indulged his medical obsession by performing minor surgeries on television, and personally selects state-of-the-art medical equipment for hospitals. "Everything is supplied by Siemens," one doctor said in a luxurious apartment building given over to medical workers.

Mr Berdymukhamedov even "signs off on work schedules for experienced doctors", according to WikiLeaks cables. Local media refers to him as the "Defender of a Healthy Way of Life".

None of this competes with Turkmenbashi for sheer weirdness: Turkmenbashi renamed January after himself and April after his late mother. School children had to study the Ruhnama, his book of home-spun wisdom. He banned ballet because he found it unnecessary, and the circus simply because he found it odd.

But the small signs of change human rights activists latched onto when Mr Berdymukhamedov first took charge have yielded little.

"The authorities are trying to gag dissidents and civil society activists by targeting not only them, but also their relatives and friends," said Anna Sunder-Plassmann at Amnesty International. "The authorities restrict freedom of movement of a large proportion of the population. We have seen no significant change since President Berdymukhamedov came to power."

It is only in the pot-holed streets of Khitrovka, a run-down soviet district, that anyone will voice discontent.

"I'm now saying things that could get me into trouble," said a man in his 40s who agreed, somewhat glumly, to talk.

"We were supposed to be going towards world standards, and [Turkmenbashi] was renaming the days of the week after his family," he said. "It was funny to a lot of people, but we didn't joke about it."

The secret police, he said, were everywhere. "We didn't have books in schools. We didn't have public transport. The businesses were broken down. You were not allowed to walk after 11, and all the stores were closed. And then he took away the pensions," he said.

By the time Turkmenbashi died in 2006, Khitrovka was in the thrall of heroin. "My friends and classmates are all dead now because of drugs, and even now, one of them is smoking heroin and another is shooting up with needles."

Mr Berdymukhamedov at least crushed the drugs mafia, gave back pensions, and increased funding to schools, hospitals, and public transport, he said.

But it has not taken long for the old excesses to return.

According to a WikiLeaks cable, photos were published two years ago in the leading state newspaper of Mr Berdymukhamedov, in "a navy blue sailing cap, a French-style white and blue striped shirt," aboard a €60 million (Dh289.5m) yacht, a gift from a Russian gas firm. A German company gave Mr Berdymukhamedov a Maybach automobile, worth $350,000 (Dh1.28m).

The price of an audience with the president rose 15 per cent when Mr Berdymukhamedov took over, according to the US diplomats.

A new presidential complex is under construction by the French construction giant Bouygues, part of a construction binge. US cables say the work is Mr Berdymukhamedov's scheme "to amass personal wealth", presumably through kickbacks.

Bouygues and Polimeks, its Turkish rival, are winning giant contracts, such as building an "Olympic" park worth US$5bn, and a Caspian resort.

There are signs that Mr Berdymukhamedov is reinstating rule by personality cult. The number of images of him does not yet rival what Turkmenbashi once had. A mosque in his home town is named after him, he has his own museum, and in October, the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, proposed that he, like his predecessor, be anointed "President for Life".

Some see in this the hand of one of Turkmenistan's great survivors, Viktor Khramov. A Russian propagandist who was trained at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, Mr Khramov was sent to Ashgabat in Soviet times to serve as Director for Ideology. "As the adviser of Berdymukhamedov, he is responsible for working out the personality cult of the new president," said Slavomir Horak, at Charles University in Prague. "He served Turkmenbashi in the same way."

"Just 20 minutes of talk with Khramov costs around $50,000," said one opposition figure. "All contacts and all meetings with Berdymukhamedov have to be confirmed with Khramov first."

US diplomats take a different line: Mr Berdymukhamedov is "the 'decider' for the state of Turkmenistan", though they concede, he's "not a very bright guy".

There is similar phantom progress for the media. Rysgal, "the first private newspaper of Turkmenistan", recently launched. Mr Berdymukhamedov features on every page.

"There's no necessity to publish this kind of opposition newspaper, because no people here have that kind of opinion," said the editor of one of 14 state newspapers stationed in the book-shaped Tower of Free Creativity.

The man in Khitrovka shrugs when asked if things are improving. "This president does little movements, just little movements," he said. "We've been waiting for the third year now for changes."

The Ruhnama, Turkmenbashi's book of wisdom, is still taught in schools. The young tour guide quotes from it frequently. For her, Mr Berdymukhamedov is simply carrying out Turkmenbashi's legacy. "The current president never rejects the programmes of the ex-president, and of course, he really respects the ex-president," she said.

She is convinced that when the arch is reconstructed, Turkmenbashi's statue will once again rotate at its peak. If she is right, and Turkmenbashi's eyes begin once again to scan his creation, those "little movements" will be even harder to perceive.

 

foreign.desk@thenational.ae