Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Turkmenistan's Niyazov:Crazy Name, Cazy Guy

Turkmenistan: Bastard Child of the USSR

‘I’m personally against seeing my pictures an statues in the street, but it’s what people want.’ President Niyazov, Turkmenistan

The ‘Stans’: Liberated into Slavery

When the USSR imploded in 1989 a number of territories containing coherent ethnic groupings began to look around and sense ‘nationhood’ approaching. To be more precise, certain political leaders, often associated with the outgoing Soviet regime, felt this the most keenly and set about exploiting the situation. Never was this tendency more prevalent than in Central Asia, the future home of the ‘Stans’. In Uzbekistan we heard in May of the massacre of hundreds, probably thousands of protesters in the eastern city of Andijan, by government troops. Since then we have learnt more about this benighted country- ruled by President Karimov, a man who it seems has no scruples of the kind tormenting our legislature at the moment regarding the treatment of terrorism suspects. Here, the chief criterion for suspicion is lack of loyalty to the president and imprisonment plus appalling torture is applied as a matter of course. Human Rights Watch calculate that 4,200 have been detained following the May massacre and it is almost impossible for relatives to make contact with them. The president has applied repression with a severity that would have done credit to Joseph Stalin himself- even the BBC decided to pull out its correspondent on 26th October. Elections have just taken place in Azerbaijan and the familiar list of complaints regarding abuse of power and rigged elections have appeared in the press. President Aliev seems just as corrupt and paranoid as the other ‘Stan’ rulers.

This 485 square kilometers of mostly barren subtropical desert-about the size of California- was first annexed by Russia between 1865 and 1885. It became a Soviet Republic in 1924 and its population suffered under the yoke of communism for nearly seventy years until 1991 when it gained its independence on 27th October, their national day (irrelevant aside: the very day I am writing this briefing). The 5 million or so new citizens of Turkmenistan-mostly Muslim by religion and Turkmen speaking- might have looked forward to a future of prosperity founded on the plentiful supplies of natural gas and oil which lie under this stretch of desert bordering the Caspian Sea- the reserves sitting under the scorched earth of this semi-desert are the fifth largest in the world. In 2001 Niyazov promised every family would have ‘a house, a car and a cow with calf.’ It has not turned out quite like that. In fact what has happened provides even more evidence-not that we needed it- of the corrupting influence of power. It also suggests the template which rulers so corrupted strive for is an ancient one whereby they seek sanctification as some kind of living God.

Turkmenistan is not an apparently well endowed country – more like a huge near desert with only 3.7% arable land- but its oil and gas make it potentially rich. Literacy is 99%-a not to be sniffed at legacy of its communist past- but instead of a Norwegian standard of living, unemployment is 60% and a similar percentage live in extreme poverty; life expectancy is a mere 58 for men- 65 for women.

On the face of it the 1992 constitution looks liberal and not dissimilar to what one might find in Western Europe. It provides the Halk Maslahaty or People’s Council- 2500 strong- plus the 50 member Mejlis or Parliament which is elected for five year terms and was last elected in April 2003. The Democratic Party of Turkmenistan holds the majority of seats. And then there is the Supreme Court to complete the theoretical picture of a well balanced liberal democracy.
But the façade is soon dispelled. There is no opposition; there was once but its leaders of which have either been locked up; have ‘disappeared’ or have fled. Those let out of prison have been so intimidated by surveillance and the threat of more torture in jail that they have kept quiet. The President and Chairman of the Council and the Supreme Leader of Parliament as well as the head of government is the same man: President Suparmurat Atajevitch Niyazov. He has managed to build up a cult of personality equaled only by that of Mao, Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong II and Stalin himself.

He was born in the tiny village of Kipcak on the outskirts of the capital Ashgabat in 1940. His father died in the war while his mother and brother were among the 100,000 killed in the earthquake which destroyed the capital in 1948. Niyazov was brought up in an orphanage before studying in St Petersburg and then returning to work as an engineer. In 1962 he joined the Communist Party and began a rapid rise through the ranks. In 1985 he was chosen by Gorbachev to become General Secretary of the Turkmenistan Communist Party. Being married to a Russian wife and having an orphan upbringing, made him advantageously free of allegiances to the powerful clan system. He was also a scrupulously obedient and deferential servant of Moscow. When the USSR began to disintegrate, Niyazov, as its then creature, opposed independence but soon scented the change in the wind and changed accordingly. He became an enthusiastic advocate of national independence, using his incumbent position to accumulate power and place himself at the centre of it. He became president, prime minister and chairman of the council of ministers. He assumed the name Turkmenbashi (Father of the Turkmen). In 1992 he was ‘elected’ president unopposed and in 1999 his team of handpicked ministers voted him president for life. He made great play of objecting when the Humanitarian Association of the World’s Ethnic Turkmen voted to prefix his name with ‘beyt’ or ‘great’ but did not object to it being used.

The press is saturated with fawning articles and pictures of the great man but no alternative view is allowed. Foreign newspapers are banned and Radio Free Europe is jammed. Satellite TV and the internet are closely monitored and censored; nearby Georgia’s US supported overthrow of Shevardnadze was not reported at all. Secret police and bugged telephones abound in the new state. The military are much in evidence. Public demonstrations never happen now. Nor is movement free- the hallmarks of tyranny in Soviet times and in South Africa under apartheid. ‘Closed zones’ are defined over 40% of the country and permits are required to pass through them. CCTV is ubiquitous and is not designed merely to curb petty crime. Insulting Niyazov carries a minimum penalty of five years in prison. Life imprisonment is the sentence given to those guilty of treason- defined in vague terms of ‘attempting to sow doubt … about internal and foreign policy conducted by the first and permanent president of Turkmenistan, the Great Saparmurat.’ Professor Jerrold Post, who researches for the CIA concludes:

‘The narcissism of the man is beyond description- he has essentially turned himself into a living god.’

25th November 2002 a failed assassination attempt was made. If tyrants like Niyazov are to be killed it is better to get them first time as the revenge taken was severe. The former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov was forced to read a confession of having organized the attempted coup and confessing to be part of a gang of ‘criminals and drug addicts’. Amnesty says many of the suspects then imprisoned were not let out or when they were, showed signs of persistent torture. There were televised show trials as in thirties USSR with defence lawyers actually apologizing for defending those they represented. The state head of Islam was removed on the grounds that he objected to having phrases from the Rukhnama written on the walls of mosques.

This book is one of the most frightening things about this clone of the departed USSR and this totalitarian run state. He wrote this between 1997 and 2001 and is a kind of philosophical work seeking to give guidance but seems more like an invented religion by the ‘living god’. ‘On a par with the bible and the Koran’ writes Niyazov, ‘it is to be used as a Spiritual Guide to remove the complexities and anguishes from day to day living’. Scenes from the book are staged in big stadia all over the country drawing on the moral purity of the president and his mother and father.
In his article in the Observer, 10th October, 2005, Tom Templeton quotes one of the very few civil rights activists in the country:

‘The country has been converted into a hopeless and sinister reservation closed from the outside world. The main part of Turkmenistan population simply doesn’t have any interest what happens. Extreme poverty, unemployment and drug taking have produced fear and hopelessness.’

Niyazov announced recently his latest idea: a palace of ice for children to use for skating. The scheme will cost £13m. The artificial lake in the Karakum desert-the Golden Lake costing £6bn- is even more dubious- fund consuming and of no use. Much better would be to dredge the Karakum Canal which has a vital role to play in the country’s economy. Investment in water infrastructure is a priority which the president refuses to recognize. Officials and the intelligentsia see the president as embarked on crazy schemes but the youth are surprisingly enthusiastic for his rule. One reason is the brain-washing which all receive: the daily pledges to the great president, the two hour compulsory daily readings from the Rukhnama. Even entrance to university and driving tests depend on knowledge of the weighty text. Children are encouraged to report parents whose knowledge of the book is faulty or insufficient. They see this state of affairs as normal, having known no other. Meetings in the president’s office are televised and broadcast weekly on the state’s three television channels. His face or his title ‘Serdar’ (leader) even is plastered all over vodka and wine bottles.

Ballet, opera, the circus and the cinema are banned in the country as the president does not think they advance national interests. Voluntary bodies have also been sieved by the president so that variety and opportunity are shrinking constantly. Before long the population will cease to acquire the skills needed to live in a modern country. Niyazov sacked 15000 health workers in February, replacing them with conscripts, in order to save the country money. Oil production has gone down rather than up as promised nor have the pipelines to the eager western markets materialized. The state provides free gas and water plus cheap housing and bread plus state sponsored horse races; without them the country might explode.
One Western diplomat is quoted by Templeton as saying:

‘If these services were withdrawn there would be chaos, you’d be looking at revolution.’

Unemployment, non payment of wages is commonplace and state services are disintegrating.

Hope springs eternal but…
People are not allowed to leave the country and this has outraged human rights bodies which suggest the UN should threaten to expel the country if human rights are not improved and respected. But the US air-force benefits from over-flying rights and western oil companies, especially in the USA, are struggling to win concessions from the self glorifying president. Even a recent delegation from Russia-also keen to win oil and gas rights- praised his achievements as ‘fantastic’ and the Rukhnama as a ‘serious philosophical work’. On balance the forces supporting the status quo out balance those seeking change and the real victims are the poor citizens of Turkmenistan.

The result could prove another failed state. Moreover Niyazov harbours aggressive attitudes towards neighbouring Azerbaijan and claims oilfields currently belonging to that state. A regional war over oil is not an unbelievable outcome. Niyazov has had a recent heart bypass but otherwise seems fit and healthy, despite being 75 years old. He is expected to make the projected election in 2008 ‘disappear’. Meanwhile the country is covered with his statued image, one of them 12 metres high, coated in gold and rotating constantly to face the sun. Airports, regions cities and schools have been renamed after the president and his parents. Most absurd of all perhaps, he has declared the month of January to be known, henceforth as Niyazov with April to be named after his mother and September after his father.

Bill Jones 28th October(corrected 8/11) 2005


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