A few days ago, the silhouette portrait of the deceased Turkmen despot, Saparmurat Niyazov, was unexpectedly removed from the upper corner of state television broadcasts. While it might be tempting to see the disappearance as a harbinger of the dismantling of Turkmenistan’s notorious cult of personality, there is plentiful evidence in Ashgabat to suggest otherwise. If anything, it seems as if the country’s new leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, is simply replacing Niyazov as the chief object of the cult’s affection. Indeed, Berdymukhamedov’s portrait has already replaced Niyazov’s on state television news broadcasts. The displays in connection with Berdymukhamedov’s 50th birthday on June 29 confirmed what many outside observers had suspected: the cult of personality – and centralized, one-man rule -- seems destined to remain a dominant feature of public life in Turkmenistan for the foreseeable future.
Berdymukhamedov supposedly expressed a desire that his birthday be observed in a low-key, even private manner. That didn’t stop Turkmenistan’s legion of bureaucratic underlings from organizing a very public bash reminiscent of the celebrations which marked Niyazov’s birthdays. (Niyazov also urged the public not to praise him so much). On the eve of Berdymukhamedov’s birthday, regiments of city workers gave generally spiffy Ashgabat another sprucing, replanting flower beds and hanging myriad flags throughout the center.
On June 29 itself, state television aired programming dedicated to Berdymukhamedov’s birthday. The number 50 flashed across the screen about every five minutes, while an announcer constantly repeated the president’s name. Between programs, state television channels broadcast long passages of the Rukhnama, the lifestyle guide purportedly penned by Niyazov, who died last December. During Niyazov’s tenure, the Rukhnama developed into a central element of the personality cult, serving as the cornerstone of state ideology, the primary text used in the country’s education system and the mandatory touchstone for almost all employment.
Berdymukhamedov’s public routine on his birthday closely mimicked that which was followed by Niyazov. In the morning, Berdymukhamedov traveled to Niyazov’s hometown of Gipjak, a town near Ashgabat, to lay flowers at a memorial dedicated to the victims of a 1948 earthquake, including Niyazov’s parents. Back in Ashgabat, there were public concerts in the afternoon. Berdymukhamedov and invited guests later attended a sadaka, or gala meal, at the Ayna Restaurant in the center of the city.
Beyond the pomp of the birthday celebration, one cannot notice that Berdymukhamedov’s portrait has started to pop up in public places all around the capital. At the same time, some vestiges of the former president, including a few golden statues, have been quietly removed.
"The cult of personality is only one manifestation of the state’s top-down control. Behind the coins and the portraits is the reality that all decisions are still being made by a single individual, not by the population as a whole," said Erika Dailey, the director of the Turkmenistan Project of the Open Society Institute. "The population is silenced on most matters, such as how to distribute the profits from the sale of Turkmenistan’s vast natural resources." [EurasiaNet, like the Turkmenistan Project, operates under the auspices of the New York-based Open Society Institute].
The personality cult has been pervasive for so long, that some Ashgabat residents dare to deride it – provided they are sure that their words cannot be overheard. "The Turkmen ideology, the Rukhnama, the fantastic accomplishments of our leader ... that’s nothing. If we need to, we say ‘Hurrah!’ If we have to recite some part of the Rukhnama, we try to do so, to get a job, or when we have to pass exams at school or at university," said one Ashgabat resident, who, for obvious reasons, spoke on condition of anonymity. The Ashgabat resident expressed mock gratitude over the fact that "we have only two books [Rukhnama part 1 and 2] to know, while Soviet citizens had Lenin’s complete works to read!"
As those comments would suggest, many in Ashgabat are simply trying to tune out the cult. In the streets, the walls of apartment buildings are covered with satellite dishes, indicating that residents are intent on evading government efforts to control the flow of information. It’s doubtful that many of those satellites are tuning into domestic broadcasts. Their purpose is to catch Russian television transmissions.
In Ashgabat today, as it was during the Soviet era, just about every vehicle on the road -- cars, trucks, even ambulances -- can act as a taxi. Such freelancing has long been a way for drivers to earn some extra income. Anyone looking for a ride simply stands at the curb and holds out a hand. It’s usually not long before a vehicle of some sort stops. The prospective rider names the destination, and the driver a price; if the two match up, then it’s off they go.
Take enough taxis in this manner and one can obtain a fairly accurate snapshot of the popular mood. It’s readily apparent that there are two kinds of Turkmen citizens: those who are working for the state, or who are dependent on someone in a civil service job, and those who are not. Those in the first category, as soon as they understand that they are driving with a foreigner invariably begin to praise government accomplishments, remark on the cleanliness of Ashgabat’s streets, and emphasize how Turkmen today are better off than during the Soviet era. It’s almost as if they all read from the same script. People in the second category, who have no connection to the government, seem willing to speak more freely. One such individual, who identified himself only as Bekmurat, was outspoken in criticizing the lack of economic opportunity in the country. Yet, almost in the same breath, he acknowledged that the Turkmen government had done a decent job in ensuring that citizens can afford the essentials of life.
"There are no jobs at all," Bekmurat complained. "I’ve got a diploma, but it is absolutely useless!" He also took aim at the deplorable state of education in Turkmenistan, where compulsory schooling now lasts only nine years. "With such a short period of education, you just don’t know anything."
But, he added, the government deserved plaudits for its heavy subsidization of such basic items as electricity, gasoline and bread. "For that, you know, people are ready to recite some parts of the Rukhnama," Bekmurat said.
Eurasianet.org July 11, 2007