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Niyazov's Cult of Personality Grips Turkmenistan

As an aging freighter inches into the Caspian Sea port city of Turkmenbashi, a red-neon sign flashes on top of the arrival terminal. It says: People, Nation, Turkmenbashi.

In Turkmenistan, nearly six million people are still caught in the iron grip of an eccentric dictator who is no longer even alive. His name is Saparmurat Niyazov, but he called himself Turkmenbashi, or father of the Turkmen. Niyazov died last December and was succeeded by his personal dentist, but like so many things in secretive Turkmenistan, little is known about how that happened.

The Central Asian state has long been one of the most isolated countries in the world. This vast, gas-rich former Soviet republic is probably best known for a Stalinist cult of personality created by Niyazov, its first president. Stunts such as holding a press conference to denounce the phenomenon of lip-synching and re-naming the month of January after himself only added to his stature as something of an international joke.


On the streets of Turkmenistan's cities and towns, the most glaring feature is still the totalitarian cult of the dead president. In town squares all over the country you'll find golden statues of Niyazov standing, or sitting on a throne, chin cradled in hand, as if deep in thought.


Niyazov fancied himself a writer and a poet. His defining work is a book, Ruhnama, which means "spiritual book," is praised as the ultimate self-help guide on billboards, official buildings and even on the sides of houses in the middle of the desert.

Ruhnama is a rambling tract full of shallow historical analysis, cliches, parables and some autobiography. The cover is cotton-candy pink and grass green, with a golden image of Niyazov in profile.

Study of the Ruhnama comprises a third of Turkmenistan's education system, and anyone entering the civil service is required to pass an exam based on the book's contents, which include stern advice instructing readers to choose clean and decent clothes and not to eat greedily. Words from the Ruhnama also line the tops of buildings: "Citizens of Ashgabat, we must make our city shine" is one example.


The streets of the capital are immaculate, cleaned around the clock by an army of women. Smoking is banned in public, and new white marble buildings gleam in the 115 degree heat, with many more under construction around the city.

But the country's education and health-care systems lag far behind its neighbors despite its vast income from natural gas exports.

Building on a Soviet Legacy

With the Ruhnama and presidential cult monopolizing the public space, people have few ways to express themselves. Day after day, Turkmen hear constant praise for the late president, who named streets, buildings, theaters and vodka, among other things, after himself.

Niyazov was the Soviet governor of Turkmenistan before independence in 1991, and the Soviet legacy means that foreign visitors are closely watched. Travel guides warn that restaurants and hotels frequented by foreigners are bugged, and Turkmen can be arrested for speaking to foreigners.

Niyazov's successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, has made a few minor changes since coming to power, and he is reaching out to restore relations with Turkmenistan's neighbors.

The most telling shift, according to a diplomat in Ashgabat, is the gradual removal of golden statues of Niyazov from official buildings where the new president's portrait is beginning to appear instead.

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