22 December 2006
Turkmenistan's President-for-Life is no longer Turkmenistan's President-for-Life
Topple the golden statues
Melt them down into a Lake of Gold
Reprint the paper money
Mint all the coins anew
Pull down the giant portraits
Change the calendar back again
Try to dance more slowly
Smile a little less broadly
Grin less, cackle softer
Find a few people who just naturally weep all the time
Hire them for a few days
Else there'll be no weeping
There is much work to do
Old Poem / 08 October 2005
He's the President-for-Life
He can laminate his Wife
He rides 'round Ashgabat in a Rolls-Royce
Made of Uncle Ben's Converted Rice
He's the President-for-Life
Don't you give him any Strife
Or he'll boil you in Halvah
And fillet you with an Obsidian Knife
He's the only President Turkmen are ever going to See
In the cavernous Grand Ballroom every afternoon at Three
He inspects the nation's Cheerleaders and says:
"Wash me that one, perfume that one,
Scent this thin one, scrub that fat one,
And later in the evening, bring them hence to Me."
He's the President Forever
He's the Kaiser Permanenter
When Turkwomen and Turkmen
Gaze æons in the Future
In the Presidential Palace
They still see Saparmurat the Moocher
Underneath Turkmeni soil
Shitloads natural gas and Oil
At his feet Western investors all must kneel
As you shiver in December
In your Western flat, remember:
He's the guy with whom you need to make a deal
There's his ass, prepare to kiss it
With your tongue, try not to miss it
He prefers it anticlockwise, so get real
Here's the 10000-Smrski
You can buy with it a Pepsi
And some deep-fried balls of Kopetdag Goat
Just in case you'd been forgettin'
That's his Countenance, his Punim
And he's also grinning at you on the 50000 Note
There he is on the one million
That's still he on the quadrillion
I could swear that's he again
On the front of the septillion
And knock me over with a feather!
Both in sunshine and bad weather
There's the President-for-Life on the gazillion!
The New York Times
Thursday 21 December 2006
Dies at 66
by C. J. Chivers
MOSCOW -- Saparmurat Niyazov, the authoritarian president of Turkmenistan, died unexpectedly today, the Turkmen government said, raising questions about succession and stability in a nation that is an essential supplier of energy to Europe.
Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan's president who died Thursday, was known for his iron rule, lavish personality cult and eccentric decrees, for instance ordering doctors to take a pledge of allegiance to the president, rather than the Hippocratic oath. Here are some of his notable comments:
"I admit it, there are too many portraits, pictures and monuments. I don't find any pleasure in it, but the people demand it because of their mentality."
"All I wanted was a small, cozy house" -- not the $100 million gold-domed, white marble presidential palace built for him.
"Anyone who complains about going without sausage or bread for a day is not a Turkmen."
"We shall conduct reforms, but not by copying what you have in America, all that sexual stuff. If I allowed all those sexual shows on TV or the newspapers, the people would stone me."
Mr. Niyazov, who gave himself the name Turkmenbashi, or the Head of All Turkmen, had ruled his sparsely populated nation since becoming chairman of the Turkmen Communist Party in 1985, when the country was a Soviet republic.
He weathered the Soviet Union’s collapse, becoming the president of independent Turkmenistan, pushing through a constitution that concentrated power in his hands and embarking upon a megalomaniacal career as president for life.
While other post-Soviet countries suffered disorder and, in some cases, revolutions or war, Mr. Niyazov lorded over Turkmenistan with a sprawling security apparatus and a fantastically well-developed personality cult. He was 66 and had suffered from heart disease, but never publicly anointed a successor.
Intrigue immediately followed his death. According to the Turkmen constitution, upon the death of a president, the chairman of the Majlis, the country’s lower house of parliament, becomes the acting president.
But in Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital, power passed instead to a deputy prime minister, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, and the state news agency announced that the prosecutor general had opened a criminal investigation against the Majlis chairman, Ovez Atayev.
The news agency also said that the People’s Council, the upper house of parliament, would hold an emergency meeting on Tuesday. Under the constitution, the council selects presidential candidates who would stand in a special election in two months, according to Michael J. Denison, a professor at the University of Leeds who specializes in Turkmen politics.
Turkmenistan, located in Central Asia next to Iran, Afghanistan and the Caspian Sea, contains many of world’s largest natural gas fields and provides gas to Russia and European countries.
Foreign governments and energy analysts expressed misgivings about the expected succession battles ahead, and what they might mean for stability and the intense international competition for the gas reserves.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, encouraged Turkmenistan at a joint appearance in Moscow to conduct a legal and orderly succession.
"We hope that the transfer of power will remain within the framework of the law," Mr. Lavrov said, according to Interfax.
Goldman Sachs sent a note to investors saying the abrupt political change "throws into question the country’s political stability and control over its substantial natural gas exports."
It added that with Mr. Niyazov gone, the United States and perhaps the European Union might compete with Russia and push Turkmenistan to consider new export routes and weaken the position of Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled gas monopoly. Gazprom relies in part on Turkmen gas to meet commitments to its customers.
There was no publicly clear front-runner to follow Mr. Niyazov’s long reign, and speculation ranged from insiders of Mr. Niyazov’s circle to exiled opposition leaders, at least two of whom said that they planned to return home.
Mr. Niyazov’s son, Murat, was also a potential candidate, in part because in 2005 Mr. Niyazov arranged for the deletion of a line in the constitution requiring the president to be an ethnic Turkmen.
Mr. Niyazov was married to a Russian woman; their son is half Turkmen. The constitutional change allowed Murat Niyazov to qualify for the post, although it was not clear whether he had the support to overcome a reputation as a playboy with little backing from the country’s five principal tribes.
Acting President Berdymukhammedov is related to Mr. Niyazov. But Mr. Denison said in an e-mail message that he is a relatively unknown political figure and "probably not a long-term successor."
One opposition figure, Khudaiberdy Orazov, a former chairman of Turkmenistan’s central bank, said the appointment of Mr. Berdymukhammedov and the criminal charges against the Majlis chairman signaled that the country’s security services were influencing events.
The security services, he said, successors to the K.G.B., played a large role in Mr. Niyazov’s rule and would try to select a president of their choosing. “We’ve been afraid of this, because having lots of blood on their hands, they are a force that does not want democratic rule,” he said by telephone from Sweden, where he lives in exile.
Inside Turkmenistan, a country largely closed to Westerners, there were signs of official mourning.
Holiday decorations were removed from the streets of the capital. State television showed a portrait of Mr. Niyazov against the sounds of the funeral march from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, according to a resident of Ashgabat reached by telephone.
Such somber pomp was hardly universal, and critics of Mr. Niyazov recalled a dictator who created an almost otherworldly totalitarian state.
Mr. Niyazov forbade independent news media and opposition parties, jailed rivals or drove them to exile, and imposed his name, words and image on all manner of public discourse and life. His face appears on Turkmen currency. His name, given to streets and buildings, is in such abundant local use that it replaced the word January on the official Turkmen calendar.
His pronouncements, many of them disconnected from the normal affairs of state, were sometimes strange enough to assume an irreverent life on the Internet. He banned video games, gold teeth, opera and ballet, and once encouraged his people to chew on bones -- good, he said, for their teeth.
It was the sort of declaration that made him the most bizarre dictator in a region dominated by autocrats, but was also a small part of his political canon. The Ruhnama, his semi-autobiographical book of philosophy, poems and instructions for moral living, is required reading in colleges and schools, and is displayed throughout the country, including in mosques.
In Prague, Yovshan Annagurban of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Turkmen Service said it was difficult to predict what course Turkmenistan would take now, after suffering decades of repression that reach back to the Soviet Union and became even stranger in Mr. Niyazov’s time.
"The problem is he destroyed everything," he said. "He corrupted everything and everyone around him. People at the top as well as ordinary people do not trust anyone and everyone."
Nikolai Khalip contributed reporting.
The New York Times Magazine
Sunday 5 January 2003
When a Kleptocratic,
by Ilan Greenberg
"Do you see our baby president on top of the world?" Marat, my driver, said, pointing to the sky. I craned my neck out the window to see an immense bronze bull with an even larger black metal globe astride its horns. Finally I saw him: a comparatively tiny gold figurine, the president as baby, maybe five stories up, nuzzling the whole earth from just below the North Pole; a golden kidney bean of an infant incongruously attached to the rest of the sculpture like a raccoon clinging to the top of a tree. "It represents our president when he was orphaned in the 1948 earthquake," Marat explained.
The first rule for a cult of personality is ubiquity. The presence of the ruler must permeate the lives of the ruled. And so Turkmenistan, a country situated uneasily between Afghanistan and Iran, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, is carpet-bombed with the image of its strange, kleptomaniac president, Saparmurat Niyazov. His face appears on every denomination of Turkmenistan's currency. A golden profile of the man is broadcast on a corner of the two national television stations at all times. Large stone Niyazovs guard the vestibules and walkways leading into every government building. Billboards of Niyazov's image plaster almost anything vertical and are planted upright at intersections. In the mid-90's Niyazov changed his name to the more all-encompassing Turkmenbashi, which translates into ''father of all Turkmen.'' He renamed the country's only significant port city after himself. In the capital, Ashgabat, where spectacular fountains have been built in every cranny yet water is rationed to two hours a day, Niyazov's massive salute to his infant self occupies the city's main square.
Like the other formerly Soviet republics in the Central Asian tinderbox, Turkmenistan has made the transition to freedom only in the sense that it is ruled now by a local dictator rather than by one in Moscow. Turkmenistan also shares with its neighbors rampant corruption and economic calcification masked by wealth from natural resources -- in Turkmenistan's case, plentiful reserves of natural gas. But even in this unstable region, which has suddenly become a focal point for the war on terrorism, Turkmenistan stands apart. A year or two ago, it was a wobbly country ruled by a profoundly weird and corrupt but apparently benign dictator. More recently, things have grown even weirder, and darker.
On Nov. 25, someone opened fire on Niyazov as he drove his own car in a motorcade through the capital. The president escaped unharmed in the attack, arousing suspicion that he choreographed the incident himself to justify and intensify a crackdown against his supposed enemies. Niyazov, to the surprise of no one, immediately fingered the shooters as thick-necked Russian "mercenaries," and among those arrested was a man holding dual American-Russian citizenship. More than 100 people have since been arrested -- there are reports of security forces picking up entire families. Turkmenistan's best-known dissident, Boris Shikhmuradov, a former foreign minister, was arrested on Dec. 26 and charged with engineering the attempted coup.
In recent weeks Niyazov's suspicion has turned against Uzbekistan. Tensions between the two neighbors had already been churning because of Turkmenistan's increasing military presence along their shared border. On Dec. 16, Turkmenistan raised the stakes by sending security police surging past guards into the Uzbek Embassy in Ashgabat to search the complex for suspects tied to the assassination attempt. Neighboring countries do have reasons to dream of regime change in Turkmenistan: Niyazov's schizophrenic decision-making is irksome to neighbors in urgent need of stable, predictable and dependable allies.
But analysts and diplomats, most of whom believe the attack was bona fide, say the coup plotters are probably home-grown, burbling out of the slushy soup of family and tribal divisions as they vie for power in the government with Communist apparatchiks who never went away.
Or it could have been a mob hit. "I wouldn't be surprised if we're looking at mob warfare, something out of 'The Sopranos,'" says Theodore Karasik, an expert on Central Asia at RAND, the policy center in Santa Monica, Calif. Western analysts say it has been rumored that Central Asian drug cartels have members in very high positions in the Turkmenistan government.
The first thing a visitor to Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat, notices -- after Niyazov's image -- is the spectacular building boom. The aesthetic looks as if it sprang from the imagination of a "Star Wars" set designer: neo-Roman monoliths upholstered in white marble, detailed in Persian kitsch. The newest government buildings are vast and low-slung, set back from large concrete concourses where no one seems to walk. The facades are all gleaming white, full of columns and imposing gold domes, but there is also lots of tinted glass and modern, sharp corners. Yet many of the buildings -- perhaps the majority -- are half-finished, and the idle construction skeletons all over Ashgabat give the impression of a city flash-frozen, like something thrown on dry ice.
This odd building boom belies Turkmenistan's accelerating downward trajectory. A quarter of adults are unemployed, according to estimates by diplomats, and underemployment numbers are much higher. Public education has been cut from 10 years to 9. The universities are in such poor shape that they have essentially been decredentialed by every other country in the world. Visas to go abroad -- especially to neighboring Iran -- are just about impossible to get. An elite government position is the ticket to wealth, reinforcing the universal perception that corruption has metastasized throughout officialdom. Meanwhile, the government enforces a strict maximum wage on public-sector jobs -- the vast majority of all work. For example, a bank teller cannot be paid more than $36 a month. To pay his cooks a living wage, a restaurant manager told me, he creates fictional employees and disperses the extra salaries to his staff.
A few years ago the government wowed citizens with eye-opening banquets of free vegetables and fruit spread along city sidewalks, financed by natural-gas exports; now Turkmenistan experiences frequent food shortages. During cotton season, soldiers have been known to board intercity buses to abduct the passengers for weeks of unpaid work picking the fields. Western diplomats estimate that Niyazov has spirited between $1.4 billion and $2 billion from the national treasury into foreign accounts.
Last spring and summer the government responded to an increasing sense of chaos by unleashing a crackdown. On Aug. 11, dissidents were arrested at Ashgabat's main outdoor market for handing out leaflets accusing Niyazov of political oppression and of stealing the country's wealth. After a Russian documentary showed starving Turkmen farmers, the government banned cable TV. Foreign newspapers -- including the Russian papers that were a news staple for people in the cities -- were also banned, leaving the bulk of Turkmenistan's five million people essentially cut off from the outside world.
Though the assassination attempt in November has led to emphatic incidents of repression, Turkmenistan's symptoms of decay are usually more subtle and insidious. Niyazov has effectively destroyed primary education in Turkmenistan. Schoolchildren study almost exclusively from a single text, a disorganized, quasi-religious memoir-cum-national history written, of course, by the president. The book, ''Ruhnama'' (the word means ''soul of the people''), is a hodgepodge of bland exhortations on how to live a moral life (''Do whatever lawful thing your parents tell you to do'') and Niyazov's own treacly poetry and putative rules for governing ("The main target in agriculture until 2010 is to increase the production of grain and cotton"). The book lashes out at the Soviet Union for mistreating Turkmen, but Niyazov is careful to omit mention of his long career as a Soviet apparatchik. "Ruhnama" also contains examples of the handwriting of the "Beloved Leader Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great."
Niyazov's bizarre antics, an Alice in Wonderland marvel to outsiders peering through the looking glass, are actually an instrument for political domination. Last summer, Turkmenistan's nominal Legislature passed the president's request to change some of the names of the days of the week and the months to his first name, his new last name and words associated with his name. (In an act of filial generosity, he ordered April to be renamed for his mother.) For Turkmen the stunt had serious political implications. One European diplomat living in the country told me that for many citizens, "Niyazov abusing the Legislature like this, turning what is supposed to be a serious meeting into a place to pass yet more cult-of-personality nonsense -- that was the last straw."
Analysts say that the country's growing instability has unpredictable and potentially dangerous implications for American interests in this strategically vital region. "All the issues that concern Americans -- drugs, transnational crime, terrorism, ethnic problems -- are a black hole in Turkmenistan," says Karasik at RAND. "This is the kind of place that can show up on the front page in a few years and take everyone by surprise."
Western diplomats say analyzing the country is like trying to get a fix on the view out the window while dining at a revolving restaurant. The small diplomatic and NGO contingent living in the country are by and large in Ashgabat, and field reports are hard to come by. Uncertainty is magnified by the sheer mystery of what will happen when Niyazov ultimately departs the scene. Because he is at the center of Turkmenistan's continuing trauma, his departure would seem to suggest a better future. But he is stripping the country of the essential elements of a stable future, like education and functioning economic and political institutions. The president's health is a constant source of rumor -- he is 62 and had heart surgery in 1997. Western diplomats say the president doesn't dare leave the country for fear of a coup and has made such a regular habit of firing or jailing his ministers that he has turned the government into a talent vacuum.
turkmen still get some carrots along with their sticks. The most cherished political sop: free gasoline. Electricity, which is actually generated from natural gas, is nearly free. Housing is heavily subsidized -- rarely is anyone's monthly rent more than $30. A one-way airline ticket costs a whopping $1.50 for travel within the country.
"Ashgabat is beautiful, yes?" waved Marat as he lighted a cigarette -- smoking is only allowed in cars and indoors -- and pumped his aging BMW with free gas.
We were heading for Mary, a four-hour drive east from Ashgabat toward Afghanistan. I went to Mary because I was told it is the city Niyazov likes least. According to people there, the president's hostility is a consequence of a murky, long-ago altercation between Niyazov's father and a Mary resident. A pleasant city of hidden courtyards and flowering trees, Mary feels more like a big village, where people keep goats and cows in their courtyards and the dawn is pierced by the call of roosters. Mary hasn't escaped the obligatory billboards and statues, but it seemed to have fewer than other cities.
In front of the train station, I met Kirvar, a compact, mustachioed man of about 40. Kirvar used to be a cigarette smuggler, but he switched to legally importing cars from Turkey after losing his contacts with customs officials. Turkmenistan is at the crossroads of one of the world's largest heroin routes, and drugs, Kirvar told me, are ruining Mary's young people. He suggested we get into his Russian Lada for a drive.
"She's one," he said, pointing to an attractive teenage girl who, like almost all women in the country, was wearing a traditional Turkmen long satiny dress. "I know her father. I think he's aware of what she's doing, but we don't talk on the subject." Inside a Mary discotheque a young Turkmen woman with streaks of dyed blond hair didn't hesitate to tell me that the going rate for heroin is $2 a dose.
Official corruption, the suppression of moderate forms of Islam and a sense that social problems like drug use are beyond the control of the government have led people in neighboring countries to embrace a harsh political Islam. It's hard to say whether Turkmenistan will follow a similar path. The country has a mostly Sunni Muslim population, and the state is avowedly secular. But the nation's school-age elite is now getting a grounding in political Islam. The force promoting political Islam here comes out of Turkey, the country with the closest ties to Turkmenistan. A private group led by a Turkish missionary named Fetullah Gulen has opened 14 ''Turkmen-Turk'' magnet schools in the country. The schools boast computers, teachers trained in Turkey and much better facilities than local schools.
I paid a visit to a Turkmen-Turk school in the northeastern city of Dashhowuz. A third-grade class offered to demonstrate its English, and when I agreed, one light-haired boy stood up and began singing the Beatles' ''Yesterday'' in a clear, strong voice. After a few minutes of his solo, the rest of the class joined in. It was a strangely affecting performance, punctuated by the way the children concluded the song by turning to each other and applauding.
Although the schools are financed with Turkish money and students are taught mostly by Turkish teachers, classroom walls are covered with aphorisms taken from "Ruhnama" (albeit in English), and a shrine to the president's book takes center stage in the school's lobby. The schools also, very covertly, proselytize their version of militant Islam, which includes advocating the need for Islamic law. "This is the one radical influence that I know about in Turkmenistan," says Shirin Akiner, a lecturer in Central Asian studies at the University of London.
"Being religious wasn't compulsory, but it was coerced," says Vepar, a 20-year-old university student who graduated from a Turkmen-Turk school and then studied in the United States under a grant offered by the State Department. "After a couple of months boys stopped looking at girls. I always tried to argue with their views, to not be a zombie about things. But they wanted us to pray five times a day, and they noticed who didn't. People would talk about making the country Islamic."
I met Ayna and her husband, Muhamed, in a restaurant in Dashhowuz, a listless place studded with candy-colored Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks and brick-and-dirt houses with sheet-metal roofs that sharply repel the unyielding desert sun. Ayna and Muhamed, both in their mid-20's and carefully groomed, were eager to discuss their lives -- a daring act in Turkmenistan, where talking unsupervised to a reporter can be dangerous. Ayna projected a very modern ironic distance when she talked about her predicament -- the predicament of being Turkmen. Ayna was the only person I spoke to in Turkmenistan who wanted me to publish her whole name. But at times even she lapsed into dejection. "My mother tells me I'm too free with my language," she said. "But I have nothing to lose. I don't have a job, anything to think about. I don't have a good life."
Muhamed, consumed with his inability to make money, turned ashen with anger once he started on his narrative. He toils 15 hours a day, every day, to earn about $8 a week installing home satellite dishes across the border in Uzbekistan. The pay is good by local measures, but for Muhamed the job is not only backbreaking, it's humiliating. He has already helped build three private businesses: installing and servicing cable TV systems, selling new cars for a German automaker and starting Dashhowuz's first photo-processing store. Each time his job was taken away when Muhamed's boss decided business was robust enough to fire him and install a friend or a nephew in his place. And it wasn't only jobs he lost, but capital as well. To start the cable business, he sold his car; for the car-sales job, he moved his family into his mother's apartment, splitting the $17 monthly rent. Muhamed is well aware of how capitalism works elsewhere, asking me about the requirements for lines of credit in the United States and the availability of small business loans. Now he has given up altogether on Turkmenistan's sputtering private sector. "I want a government job," he said.
My stay in Dashhowuz coincided with a presidential visit. The foreign ministry had denied my request for an interview with the president -- in fact, it denied my request for an interview with anyone in the country. I was eager to catch a glimpse of Turkmenbashi the Great, the man whose imprint on this country was so total. The police had cordoned off his route from the airport, but I was allowed to linger on a side road near enough to see the street he would be traveling on. Children were allowed to crowd the intersections. It was a clear, hot autumn morning, and the children distracted themselves with ice-cream bars and sodas.
Suddenly, the kids were calling out -- screaming, really -- as a motorcade of black Mercedes-Benzes slowly moved toward us. From out of one car emerged a chunky man with very black hair, a mechanical smile and an overflowing fist of what I was to discover later were American $100 bills. The children seemed to understand the proceedings. They stuck out their palms as Turkmenistan's president-for-life, the nation's very own secular ayatollah, doled out the bills. Television cameras recorded the act of benevolence.
I thought of the last thing Vepar, the student with an independent mind, had said to me: "These people are not forever. I just hope the new people will come as soon as possible. And in a peaceful way." With the children running to their parents clutching enough money to cover the rent for half a year, Niyazov returned to his sedan. The driver pumped down on the accelerator, and with the free gas given to every citizen of Turkmenistan, the car moved past my line of sight, and he was gone.
Ilan Greenberg, formerly a reporter for The Asian Wall Street Journal, is a writer based in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
Turkmenistan Accuses Russia in Attempt on Its President's Life (November 27, 2002)
Turkmen Leader Unhurt in Attack by Gunman (November 26, 2002)
Turkmen Leader, Wishing to Be August, Settles for January (August 11, 2002)
Turkmenistan's Leader Is Voted President for Life (December 29, 1999)