In 2006, when Turkmenbashi (“Father of all Turkmens”), President Saparmurat Niyazov, suddenly died and was replaced by former Health Minister and dentist Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, there was hope and open discussion that some of the more farcical eccentricities of the previous president would be removed.
Indeed, President Berdymukhamedov seem to give fuel to those hopes when some of his first moves in office were to rename the months of the calendar back to their original names (Niyazov had given them all new names based off of his own and mother’s), replacing the image of the former president from Turkmen currency except for the highest denomination, the 500 manat note (before that Niyazov’s image adorned EVERY single bank note issued by the Turkmen central bank), and even lessoning the ‘testing standards’ needed by students and teachers when it came to memorizing and knowing the Rukhnama (The Book of the Soul), which was basically a treatise supposedly written by Niyazov and meant to de facto replace all forms of holy books for the Turkmen people. Heady times indeed and cause for optimism for the Central Asian nation that is the world’s fourth-largest producer of natural gas and sometimes considered as having the potential for being a Central Asian UAE. Unfortunately, the progression of time and the lure of megalomania have proven to be too seductive a temptress. As a result, Turkmenistan may be headed back into the abyss of political dementia.
A country that once had pictures and posters of Niyazov adorning everything, from buildings to streets to books to bus stops, now seems to have a similar frequency of Berdymukhamedov posters. There is discussion that there ‘might be a need’ for the Turkmen central bank to issue a new higher denomination note, the 1000 manat, and I bet it won’t be a surprise to many readers as to whose visage is going to adorn it. While the current president repealed the rather odd ban on opera enacted by Niyazov, he has inexplicably enforced a new ban on ballet (no logical explanation seems to be offered for this thought process, humorously, although personally I would have favored the ban to be switched back). The renaming of streets and schools, especially in rural areas across the countryside, has begun in earnest, honoring either the president or members of his family. Vanity construction projects abound throughout the country, including the most recent park which contains a massive fountain holding a giant golden statue of Berdymukhamedov riding a fierce stallion (rumors persist that the statue is of course not gold-plated but solid gold). While the laundry list of ego-stroking could go on forever, perhaps the fact that the Turkmen President had the Council of Elders bestow the formal title of Arkadag (The Patron) on himself while fervently praising the new publication, Adamnama (Book for All Humanity), which he of course wrote, is the most telling: in these last two examples I would argue it is no longer about trying to replace one cult of personality for another or the attempt to erase from collective cultural memory his predecessor, but rather it is the embracing and institutionalization of such cults to a truly astounding level. The Father is now succeeded by The Patron. After having memorized and adopted your Book of the Soul, young Turkmen citizens can focus on understanding the profundities of the Book for All Humanity. The hope of a new dawn of global community normalcy and international economic engagement is dashed against the rocks of cult of personality creep.
Indeed, while it may be amusing and Willy Wonka fascinating for outside readers to learn of these strange goings-on in Turkmenistan, one should not underestimate the seriousness such creep has on the future of the country. For every street renaming or school rededication, for every statue unveiling and banknote pressing, regular everyday citizens feel essential freedoms limited and constrained. Some on the local scene would have you believe it is now more difficult as a citizen of Turkmenistan to leave the country, even for vacation, than it is for foreigners to get permission to come in to the country. While formal state statistics declare unemployment at a globally admirable 5%, most rational international agencies estimate it to be far closer to 50%. The US Peace Corps, hardly what anyone would consider a radical politically-motivated foreign agency, was banned from the country, while media and freedom of speech remains under tight state control. Security in general remains at a permanent high level. Unfortunately for the state, people no longer believe the government-propelled messages to remain a ‘stable island’ in a sea that has them surrounded by countries like Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. In the frantic height of America’s Global War on Terror both Niyazov and Berdymukhamedov utilized that opportunity to maximum ‘domestic control’ effect. The popular support and belief in such heavy-handedness today, however, seems to be dramatically dissipating. Whether that actually translates into civil unrest or disobedience seems unlikely, however: breaking a cult of personality is sometimes more complicated and more difficult than transitioning from a more ‘simple’ autocratic regime.
This is not to say nothing done by the Arkadag has been good or successful. But these accomplishments, I think, need to be placed more firmly in their contextual relativism: when people praise improvements made in schools, hospitals, internet access, or domestic travel, it is not saying Turkmenistan has become a model of democratic liberalism for other Central Asian or Caspian countries to follow. Rather, it is simply saying it has taken a small step away from the abyss that once characterized those issues under Niyazov. Normally, jumping from a -3 to a +3 on a scale of 1 to 10 is indeed cause for careful optimism. As we know, consolidated institutionalized democratic principles are not built in a day. But the worry, it seems to me, is in getting to that +3 on the scale might now be deemed ‘good enough’ by those in power. Thus the ensuing emphasis on all of these vanity projects and side endeavors that really won’t result in the improvement of any normal citizen’s standard of living or quality of life.
Turkmenistan could indeed be a UAE for Central Asia, Ashgabat its Dubai. But it is not. Not today. Such is the constant and continuous burden for a Turkmen: you keep getting a Papa and a Patron, with a Rukhnama and an Adamnama, when all you really want and need is a President with a Constitution that truly measures up to the global standards and stops worrying about the cult of personality creep.