After the article in FT195:74-77 it does appear to an interesting topic and here is another travel report:
The bizarre world of Turkmenbashi the Great
His golden statue rotates to face the sun. He has renamed January after himself. And under his rule, his country has become as wealthy as Dubai and as paranoid as North Korea. Stephen Castle reports on President Niyazov of Turkmenistan
23 April 2005
Turkmenistan's "president for life" Saparmurat Niyazov is grinning broadly from behind a highly polished table in the marbled and wood-panelled opulence of his Ashgabat palace. "Are you happy with what you find in our country?" the President asks his visitor, one of the rare foreigners who will question the country's dubious human rights situation.
Offered a studiously neutral reply, President Niyazov's smile melts quickly as he leans forward to repeat the question, only this time with an air of menace. Then The Independent is firmly shown the door as the president for life squares up to Dimitrij Rupel, of Slovenia, representing the OSCE, a pan-European watchdog devoted to conflict prevention and human rights.
With almost absolute power over the lives of his subjects, Mr Niyazov has unleashed a series of bizarre and arbitrary policies, closing operas, ballets, circuses, and orchestras. Libraries in rural areas are being shut down, education is being ravaged.
Although about 90 per cent of Turkmenistan's people live outside the capital, health care in the regions is being scaled down. "If people are ill, they can come to Ashgabat," the President was quoted as saying, despite the fact that Turkmenistan is twice the size of Britain. Reports that all regional hospitals have been closed are denied, though the situation outside the capital is impossible to verify. What is known is that the President has already fired 15,000 health personnel, replacing them with army conscripts. While rural health care is being cut, the President recently flew a team of six German doctors to Turkmenistan to give him an eye operation.
Thanks to his grip on his country's vast oil and gas reserves, President Niyazov has turned Turkmenistan into one of the most closed countries in the world, creating a personality cult to rival that of Kim Jong-Il. Under his rule the former Soviet republic has become an unsettling mixture, with all the showy wealth of a country such as Dubai and the rampant paranoia of North Korea.
This, after all, is a leader whose gold-leaf covered statue can be seen in the city's skyline as it rotates to face the sun, a man who has renamed the month of January after himself.
The ornate palace is one of two belonging to the President, who in fact lives in neither, preferring another residence out of town. Inside, the motif is marble rather than gold, with a decorated roof overhanging an enormous entrance hall which sports large paintings of Turkoman warriors of the past.
Up the large central staircase and through two antechambers lies the President's chandeliered office, where a stocky man wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and a long red tie sits behind an elaborate floral display. Despite his eye and heart surgery, the President looks fit and energetic, having died jet black the grey hair that can be seen in his portrait on the country's banknotes. In the entire palace there is only one hint that we are in a former Soviet republic; visitors needing to answer a call of nature are advised to bring their own lavatory paper. Thirteen years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union gave Turkmenistan its independence, President Niyazov's domination is total, his regime more unpredictable and extreme than ever.
Human Rights Watch put the situation thus: "Abuses are widespread and include violations of civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights. There is no free media, or freedom of expression, assembly, or association. Those who criticise the government are imprisoned after grossly unfair trials and often tortured; their relatives are often evicted from their homes and dismissed from their workplaces. In a practice reminiscent of the Stalin era, the government banishes individuals and groups deemed 'dangerous' to uninhabitable desert regions."
Turkmenistan is an archetypal one-party state with no opposition or centres of alternative power. Most of its citizens are cut off from the outside world: internet access is limited and expensive, with sites deemed to be subversive blocked by the one provider. Cable television was scrapped, although across Ashgabat satellite dishes have sprung up allowing viewers to bypass state television's obsession with the President.
Foreigners' entry to the country is strictly controlled, although yesterday the President was moved to abolish a law requiring foreigners to deposit £26,000 in a bank account and own an apartment here if they want to marry a local. Recently the government ended its contract with the international courier DHL, cutting one of the few reliable links with the rest of the world. Britain's embassy in Ashgabat tends to avoid controversy by concentrating on such issues as commercial links, donating free solar panels to nomads, helping combat drugs trafficking and giving away English textbooks. Complaining about human rights abuses is left to Mr Rupel and the OSCE. Because Turkmenistan is a member, it is one of the few international organisations still attempting a dialogue with President Niyazov, hoping to curb his worst excesses, though it knows it is walking a tightrope.
That is because conversations with the President are filled with bonhomie until mention is made of Turkmenistan's total disregard for human rights. At this point discussions tend to go one of two ways. On some occasions, according to one visitor, President Niyazov laughs the matter off, along the lines of "did we really send him to prison? Oh, perhaps we did, ha, ha, ha". On others, he launches into a lengthy and angry tirade. After this 90-minute private encounter, Mr Rupel, who is Slovenia's Foreign Minister, described talks as "controversial and lively from time to time" - as close as a politician will come to saying that they have had a shouting match. Nevertheless, officials rank the discussions as a success on the basis that, as one put it, "at least there was an exchange of views rather than the standard monologue from the President".
Turkmenistan's law provides a framework for one of the globe's most repressive regimes. One piece of legislation bars "traitors of the motherland" from contacting foreigners, another bundles together terrorists and anyone branded a political opponent.
But it is not just repressive laws that mark out Turkmenistan, it is the fact that the population is subject to the whims of the supreme autocrat, widely known as Turkmenbashi or father of all Turkomans. There may, for example, be no specific ban on beards in Turkmenistan, but the President dislikes them and consequently there are no bearded men on the streets of Ashgabat. When a similar presidential objection to gold fillings was expressed, students with the wrong kind of dental work started to find it impossible to get places in higher education.
The "respected leader, great Turkmenbashi" encourages traditional folk dancing but not pop music. Alcohol is freely available to the overwhelmingly Muslim population but smoking in the street means an instant fine. And, although about 90 per cent of Turkmenistan is covered by desert, one of Mr Niyazov's latest ideas is to build an ice-rink.
Saparmurat Niyazov was born in 1940 and lost his father during the Second World War and his mother in the earthquake that struck Ashgabat in 1948. Brought up in an orphanage, he trained as an engineer in Leningrad, then rose through the Communist Party to its most senior post in Turkmenistan.
Amid the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he became the first president of the newly created Turkmenistan in October 1990, by popular vote but unopposed. In elections in 1992 the President was endorsed with 99.5 per cent of the votes cast. His grip has been tightened since November 2002, when the presidential motorcade came under attack. No one is quite sure whether this was a set-up or a proper coup attempt, though the result was a series of show trials and a purge of potential rivals assumed to be rotting in jail. There are no statistics on the number of political prisoners in Turkmenistan, and President Niyazov now refers to them as terrorists. At the Turkmenistan parliament, Mr Rupel's call for development of democracy was somehow lost in translation and became "development of the state".
Life for the President's subjects is ruled by the country's most important book, the Rukhnama, a 400-page tome written by the supreme ruler. The Rukhnama blends personal experiences - including an account of the death of the President's mother - with extracts from the Koran, national legends and Turkoman history. A stream of consciousness, it comes in no particular order, complicating the task of the populace since knowledge of the Rukhnama is a prerequisite for getting a driving licence, let alone a decent job.
Meanwhile, the new calendar has replaced January with Turkmenbashi, renamed April after his mother and September after the Rukhnama. This is a place of domes, spires, arches, landscaped gardens and fountains, but very few people. Yet behind the grandiose façade, there are growing signs that central Ashgabat may be little more than a giant Potemkin village - like the fake settlements created to impress Catherine the Great on her tours of the 18th century. So much cash has been spent in the capital that little is left for the rest of the country. According to one resident, going outside Ashgabat is like "being back in the USSR".
The economy is heavily reliant on energy, but under-investment has hampered production levels. Otherwise the business environment is stagnant and agriculture depends on irrigation - a huge problem since all water resources originate outside the country. Even arithmetic books ask questions such as: if one child has read three pages of the Rukhnama and a second has read two, how many have been read in all? But the winds of change may soon be blowing through the empty streets of Ashgabat. Last month in Kyrgystan, the President was swept from power by a peaceful and popular uprising. This week President Niyazov promised that he would retire before the next presidential elections in 2009.
Few take him at his word, however. With no political opponents, no independent media, no obvious rival and an iron grip on the country, mortality seems the main threat to the 65-year-old President, given that he has undergone heart bypass surgery.
And, in the city's Russian bazaar, there are few signs of unrest. One market trader declares life to be good, citing the free gas, electricity and water. Food is plentiful and Serdar vodka is on sale for the equivalent of 50p - making it about half the price of a copy of the Rukhnama. Naturally, the label on the bottle bears a prominent picture of Turkmenistan's smiling President.