His face is on bank notes and his name on every road. But Turkmenbashi was no joke. He was an insanely barbaric despot
The brutal and bizarre reign of Turkmenistan dictator Saparmurat Niyazov ended with his death at 66 yesterday. His iron rule and ludicrous personality cult has left the central Asian republic backward and unstable and, with no designated successor, it is feared there could be a power struggle between supporters of neighbouring Russia and those of the West. At stake are Turkmenistan’s huge gas reserves and plans to use them to meet a quarter of Europe’s needs.
THE words of the national oath give only a hint of the despot who wrote them: Turkmenistan, you are always with me in my thoughts and in my heart. For the slightest evil against you let my hand be cut off. For the slightest slander about you let my tongue be cut off. At the moment of my betrayal of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great, let my breath stop.
But in the end it was the dictator’s breath that stopped, not those of his miserable benighted people, who were forced on pain of death to say this oath daily at work or school.
If there was an Olympic games for the dictators’ biathlon of brutality and megalomania, Saparmurat Niyazov would have been world record-holder and gold medal winner.
Turkmenbashi (Father of the Turkmen) claimed to be his nation’s greatest leader. But he left it as the most oppressed and miserable of all the countries that arose out of the ruins of the Soviet Union. And far from being the world statesman and thinker that his propaganda machine portrayed him, he was derided the world over for his ludicrous personality cult and insane self-importance.
There are plenty of jokes about Turkmenbashi. His habit of naming most prominent landmarks (and the country’s main port) after himself made giving directions difficult.
How do you get to Turkmenbashi bus station? You go up Turkmenbashi street, turn left on to Turkmenbashi Avenue, and when you get to Turkmenbashi Square you are nearly there - just go past the statue of Turkmenbashi and follow the signs.
A planet of the Taurus constellation, a crater on the Moon, a mountain peak were among other things given his name, along with a breed of horse, the longest canal in the world, ships and children.
His chubby face and dyed black hair adorn bottles of vodka and cognac and brands of tea and food.
But his rule was no laughing matter. The slightest flicker of dissent was ruthlessly purged by his fearsome KNB secret police. Opponents and their families were abducted, tortured and murdered.
RELIGIOUS belief and all other kinds of independent thought and activity were banned, or perverted into part of his personality cult. ’It’s the most repressive country I’ve ever been to,’ Conservative MEP Martin Callanan told EU observers earlier this year after a trip there. ’Human rights standards don’t exist.’
Backwardness was Turkmenbashi’s ally: he did not want Turkmen to read and think for themselves, so he abolished libraries, closed universities and lowered the school leaving age. The curriculum consists of studying the dictator’s life and works, including his magnum opus, the rambling two-volume Ruhnama (The Book of the Soul) - a work so incomprehensible that it makes the ramblings of Mao, Gaddafi or Guevara read like Orwell.
A sample passage: The spiritual analyses and descriptions of the content of the unrepeatable amount of the coincidences, similarities and differences of the history are needed. In this discourse, unifying and generalising philosophies play a role.
Knowing screeds of this piffle by heart became a precondition for gaining, and holding, any job of the slightest importance, and even for applying for a driving licence.
So how did this comical, gruesome character come to power? And what will happen now he is dead?
Born in 1940, Mr Niyazov (to give him his real name) grew up in a Soviet orphanage - an upbringing guaranteed to eradicate any normal human feelings.
He rose through the ranks of the Soviet Communist Party, becoming party chief of what was then the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic in 1985.
Ironically, he gained that position thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev, who saw him as an energetic and honest replacement for the corrupt old guard that had run Soviet Central Asia in the stagnant years of Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union.
But by 1991, Mr Niyazov thought there had been quite enough democracy. He backed the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev that tried to restore hardline rule in the Soviet Union. When that failed, he declared independence something that his country had never enjoyed in history.
That gave him a blank slate to rewrite the national identity. The Russian language and Cyrillic alphabet were dumped cutting the population off from their best route to world literature and culture.
For all its faults, even Vladimir Putin’s Russia seems like a civilised and democratic country compared to the savage and primitive conditions in Turkmenistan.
Turkmenbashi put his face on banknotes, renamed months of the year and days of the week after ’famous’ Turkmen figures - including his mother. A colossal gold-plated statue of himself was erected in the capital Ashgabat that rotates so his face is always turned towards the sun. In 1999 the Turkmen parliament voted (unanimously of course) to make him president for life.
As the years went by, eccentricity turned to barbarity. In March 2004, he fired 15,000 public health workers, particularly nurses, midwives, and school health visitors.
Last year he ordered the closure of clinics and hospitals outside the capital. If people were really ill, he said, they could come to Ashgabat.
He became obsessed with the outward appearance of his hapless subjects, at one point banning gold dental work, claiming that chewing bones would preserve teeth perfectly well. He also banned beards, opera, ballet and video games, while his personal paranoia meant that he shunned foreign travel.
That may have cost him his life: his foreign doctors recommended urgent heart surgery, but he was too scared to leave Turkmenistan for fear that his loving subjects would combine against him.
Turkmenistan probably had little chance of turning into a flourishing democracy. But it did not need to be so poor. The country has the world’s fifth-largest natural gas reserves. These are not only badly managed, but sold at cut-price rates to Russia - Turkmenistan has no pipeline to export its gas independently.
Foreign energy companies repeatedly tried to do deals with Niyazov, but were invariably left bewildered and frustrated.
Those gas reserves are why the events in Turkmenistan matter to us. It is Turkmen gas that is due to fill the gaping shortfall in supplies that Russia has pledged to supply to Europe.
Lack of investment means that Russia is running out of its own gas. Without billions of extra cubic metres from Turkmenistan, Mr Putin will soon face the choice between freezing his voters at home or his customers abroad.
The West is hamstrung. We have been longing for the demise of a ghastly dictator, while paying too little attention to the geopolitics of the region.
But we can be sure that the Kremlin has a close eye on its neighbour and will act fast and ruthlessly to secure its interests if an even more unstable regime replaces the vacuum left by Turkmenbashi’s death.
By Edward Lucas, Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist The Daily Mail December 22, 2006