The pack of TV cameras arrived at Columbia University in time for copious coverage of the campus appearance by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, but they were too late for what a National Journal blogger called “another potentially crazy world leader” on the school’s dance card on Monday.
Luckily, Radio Free Europe/Free Liberty was on hand to hear a keynote address by Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the relatively new president of Turkmenistan, one of the weirdest and most repressive governments on earth.
Mr. Berdymukhammedov began his appearance by portraying his nation as the farthest thing from odd. Here’s the doubt-infused account from RFE/FL:
Berdymukhammedov led an interactive presentation where pupils in supposedly regular middle schools in Turkmenistan were shown typing on sleek, late-model computer laptops, girls dressed in traditional costumes were dancing in a sparkling city park, and a provincial bazaar abounded in fruits and vegetables.
They were scenes of a Turkmenistan, where, as the president said, not natural gas but people are its “greatest asset.”
After he was done, tough questions forced him to drop the rose-colored tone of a magazine insert for flat-out denials and unexpected proclamations. While he didn’t deny the existence of homosexuals in his nation as Mr. Ahmadinejad did to waves of laughter, he did offer a few whoppers.
Problems with press freedom?
“There was never in Turkmenistan any pressure on the press,” he answered.
But this is what C.J. Chivers, a correspondent for The New York Times, found during his visit there a few months ago:
There is also no public discussion of the country’s problems or the government’s behavior because there is no independent press. All Turkmen news content is controlled from the president’s office.
“They never tell the truth,” said one young woman. “Everything is good, good, good.”
Why aren’t Western aid organizations allowed to operate there?
“Please, this is not an issue,” the president asserted. “There are no restrictions.”
Again, Mr. Chivers found something far different: “A land tightly managed by its sprawling intelligence apparatus and all but closed to outsiders.”
And when the conversation at the university turned to political prisoners and two missing cabinet members, Mr. Berdymukhammedov deployed a bit of jujitsu. According to the RFE/RE report, he “chose that moment” to announce plans to grant amnesty to 9,000 people now sitting in Turkmenian jails. As for the missing officials, he said it was an issue for the previous administration. “I am positive that they are alive,” he assured the room.
His final puzzling move was to tell attendees that his staff would be happy to answer any further questions. But RFE/RL, evidently the only organization to publish a report on the event in English, got nowhere when it tried to take him up on the offer.
By Mike Nizza The New York Times September 25, 2007