Friday, December 22, 2006

Life Under The Turkmenbashi's Thumb

“Our whackjob dictator is dead. Now what?”

That’s the question many Turkmen will be asking themselves this week, as the nation of Turkmenistan buries its leader of 21 years. I visited the small Central Asian republic of about 5 million people in November 2006 and saw first-hand the results of one man’s autocratic – and deeply weird – rule.

Saparmyrat Niyazov rose to power within the former Soviet Union as a dutiful apparatchik. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev rewarded Niyazov for his loyalty with the top job in his homeland, the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan. Niyazov did what Moscow said, but he wasn’t much of a glasnost-era reformer. Niyazov ruled as a totalitarian and, after the fall of the Soviet Union, he proclaimed an independent Turkmenistan of which he was President, a title later upgraded to President For Life.

So far, so typical. The Turkmenistan story doesn’t seem too different from that of many other former Soviet republics – except that, somewhere along the line, Niyazov went batshit insane.

For the past decade, Western journalism about Turkmenistan has been monopolized by reports of Niyazov’s cult of personality, which manifested itself in grandiose construction projects and idiosyncratic laws.

The stories about the statues are true. Statues of Niyazov, who granted himself the title “Turkmenbashi [Father of All Turkmen] the Great,” are everywhere, even in smaller towns. Some are plated with gold; some are painted yellow. One sits atop a three-legged Space Age monstrosity called the Arch of Neutrality and rotates throughout the day, always facing the sun.

Niyazov decreed that the exteriors of all new buildings in the capital city of Ashgabat had to be lined with white marble. Fair enough. What’s the point of running your own country if you can’t amend the Building Code? Niyazov’s architectural aesthetic also demanded gold-trimmed windows, grand staircases and massive foyers with a perimeter of fat marble-clad columns.

From the streets and sidewalks, Ashgabat is the beautiful “White City” that Niyazov decreed. Cavernous museums and dressy government ministries dot the city. Niyazov ruled from the gold-domed Palace of Turkmenbashi, a building you’re forbidden to photograph, a quaint restriction in the days of Google Earth. Outside the central city, a new district has been erected, with rows of hotels and luxury apartment towers.

All of these new buildings were built with petrodollars culled from the exploitation of Turkmenistan’s natural gas reserves, the fifth-largest in the world, according to the BBC.

But most of the shiny new buildings are empty and falling apart.

The gleaming white boxes of Ashgabat are a Potemkin village. The hotels – most of which are owned by Niyazov’s son -- are nearly empty, because Turkmenistan’s baroque immigration procedures require travelers to obtain a Letter of Invitation and be cleared by internal security, a process which takes several weeks. At the grandest hotel of all, the President Hotel (next door to the all-important oil and gas ministry), I had dinner in a restaurant which rivaled the opulence of the Bellagio in Las Vegas – a treat for myself and the two African businessmen who were the only other diners.

The hotels seem to be managed by people who have never stayed at a hotel which, given the fact that most Turkmen are not allowed to travel, may be the case. In the Nissa Hotel, my room contained a standard min-bar menu, but the mini-bar was empty except for a lonely bottle of water, which was not replenished the next day. The room featured a tea set but no tea. My shower head would not stay in one place, the television did not work, and the telephone did not connect to the front desk or to room service. All this in a relatively new and upscale hotel.

The Turkmenbashi decreed that it would be built, and it was built, and it was not good. The point of many of these erections was to look striking from a distance and when pictured in the state-controlled media. The blocks of luxury apartments were mostly empty, the national museum had more docents than visitors, and, when you inspected the details, everything was moldy or shoddy.

Follies abounded. Two new mosques could seat a combined total of 25,000 faithful, but between them I saw one man praying. Several theatres were built, but Niyazov ruled that opera and ballet and other productions were “un-Turkmen,” so the pavilions sat empty. The Olympic Stadium never saw an Olympic game. An amusement park – officially called the World of Turkmen Fairy Tales but universally referred to as “Turkmen Disneyland” -- was closed during my visit, with an uncertain re-opening date in December. The hills outside the capital are scarred with the 36-kilometer Health Walk, a concrete hiking trail; like everything else, it was built without regard to how Turkmen would actually use it – there did not appear to be any water vendors or toilet facilities — and the only people I saw on the trail were maintenance men.

Pictures of Niyazov were everywhere -- in the stores, above the doors to most public buildings, on all the money, on patriotic billboards, even on the bulkhead walls of all Turkmenistan Airlines planes. A lot of things were named after him, too -- the main airport, the local liquor, a meteorite, the first month of the year.

One restaurant in which I dined had a magazine rack which contained about a half dozen Turkmen periodicals. All were at least a year old, and every article was about the President For Life. The two newspapers, one printed in Turkmen and the other in Russian, were broadsheets of about 8 pages, brimming with more tales of the Turkmenbashi. It would be hard to fill eight pages a day with stories about George W. Bush; I felt sympathy for the writers.

The state-controlled media also included stones. Throughout the country, white stones were used to inscribe patriotic slogans on the sides of hills or at crossroads. The man wanted to sell his message.

The regime mistrusts private enterprise. Ashgabat has about 700,000 people, but, outside of the hotels, there are only a handful of bars and a dozen or so restaurants in the central city. There was nothing to do except go home and watch Russian soap operas via the ubiquitous satellite dishes. A poor village in the Karakum Desert lacked indoor plumbing, but most villagers had a satellite dish.

Meanwhile, aspects of the economy which did not glorify Niyazov’s ego were neglected. The buses in the towns outside of Ashgabat were rattletraps. For the price of one or two luxury apartment buildings, Niyazov could have equipped the entire country with new buses running for pennies on the land’s bountiful natural gas.

Niyazov fancied himself a philosopher-king, so his book of mythic balderdash and poetry, Rukhnama, is required reading. Its author suggested that two hours a day was an appropriate amount of study. One Turkman with whom I spoke said he’d never cracked it open. He’s missing 398 pages of “Today, time passes so fast; this is just a point between eternity and the future” and “Let’s select a thousand-winged horse/And travel praying over plains and mountains/And seek for the ancestors who became part of them/And you are the Turkmen which hosts 360 saints.”

It gets worse. Hospitals in the provinces were closed. The jails at one time held more than 22,000 political prisoners. Movement was restricted by a checkerboard of roadblocks which required people to stop and produce their papers every few kilometers. The Turkmen outside of Ashgabat are treated like second-class citizens, and I was informed that they vented their frustrations by persecuting soldiers from the capital who are sent to the provinces for their mandatory military service.

All of which yields a poor country in which people should be wealthy – by rights, as wealthy as Norway – but instead live in cramped Soviet-era apartment blocks which, due to the Turkmenbashi’s tin ear for urban planning, are actually the nicest places in the country to live.

I sat in the hotel bar, and a young Turkmen woman approached me to chat. I bought her a drink, and, after four minutes of small talk, she asked if I would marry her so she could leave the country.

“Why do you want to leave?” I asked.

“Life is bad here,” she said. “The university is bad. You need to know the government to have a job.”

Then she threw back her head and sighed in the theatrical fashion of an exasperated 24-year-old:

“And it is SO-O-O boring!”

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Anonymous f. barnes said...

no reason this shouldn't be running as a ``ashgabet diarist.'' arch of neutrality is too classic for belief.

8:27 AM  
Anonymous Tom said...

Wow. You forgot to mention the time he imprisoned Kirk, Spock and Bones and threaten to kill them unless they turned the Enterprise over to him. Great stuff.
Kirk would have gotten the woman out of there, btw.

9:34 AM  

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