Prague, 17 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Celebrations marking President Saparmurat Niyazov's birthday are an occasion for Turkmenistan’s roughly 5 million people to show their devotion to their leader.
"It's one of the most popularly celebrated holidays in the Turkmen calendar," says Erika Dailey, the Budapest-based director of the Open Society Institute’s Turkmenistan Project. "It's one of the occasions in which the entire nation is called upon forcibly to celebrate. So it's very similar to events under the Soviet Union. Generally, there are enormous parades, congratulations of the president from members of the parliament and the government and so forth."
"If you are not against it, in 2008 or 2009, let's hold presidential elections. No, esteemed people, there are other people growing up. After I will become 70, let me go, because nothing is forever." -- Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov
The holiday was initially conceived by the parliament (Mejlis) as a day of rest to mark Niyazov's birthday. Ridiculed by the international media for cultivating a personality cult, the president rejected that suggestion and turned the birthday celebration into Flag Day.
Last year, the event was marked by concerts, horse races, and children in national costume praising their leader's merits in both Turkmen and English. The festivities were capped with a military parade at Ashgabat's central stadium. A chestnut-colored stallion was presented to the president as a gift.
The governor of St. Petersburg, Valentina Matvienko, used the run-up to the festivities to meet with Niyazov in the capital, after which he signed a cooperation agreement in the fields of economy, science, and culture.
"For many of the countries that seek to cultivate closer relations with Turkmenistan," Dailey says, "the president's birthday has become an opportunity to do that. But not everyone is pooled into that game."
Indeed, the pomp of the day did not fully muffle the first known case of medically unjustified incarceration of a dissident in a psychiatric hospital in Turkmenistan since 1997.
Russia's nongovernmental Memorial Human Rights Center reported that 63-year-old Gurbandurdy Dyrdykuliev was forcibly confined to a psychiatric facility after appealing to the authorities for permission to conduct a demonstration to express dissatisfaction with Niyazov's policies. The demonstration would have coincided with the national holiday.
In 2003, the London-based human rights organization Amnesty International marked Niyazov's 63rd birthday with an international campaign against Turkmenistan's appalling human rights record, calling for the release of prisoners of conscience, investigations into allegations of torture, and an end to the clampdown on dissent.
Niyazov has secured a presidency-for-life for himself, though, from time to time, he calls on the parliament to hold presidential elections as he approaches his 70th birthday.
"If you are not against it, in 2008 or 2009, let's hold presidential elections," Niyazov said recently. "No, esteemed people, there are other people growing up. After I will become 70, let me go, because nothing is forever."
Yet Turkmen citizens have little to celebrate. Having declared himself Turkmenbashi, he has taken personal control of the country’s political and economic resources. At the same time, he has built up a personality cult in which his birthday plays a big part.
In 2003, Niyazov's biggest 63rd birthday gift came from his government ministers, who proclaimed him God's prophet on Earth.
His 62nd birthday coincided with a decree dividing up the ages of the Turkmen, according to which the president himself moved from "the age of the prophet" to "the age of inspiration."
Niyazov also announced that all citizens who reach the age of 62 would receive a three-day holiday and a salary bonus, in a country where the average life expectancy at birth for males has dropped to under 60 years, according to the World Health Organization.
Niyazov's critics have claimed his personality cult is comparable to that of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who turned 63 yesterday.
Cheering army officers gathered on 13 February to watch fireworks in the sky over Kim's legendary birthplace at Mount Paekdu, kicking off the three-day gala birthday celebrations. The officers braved the cold to pledge their allegiance to Kim.
"We will always follow our dear leader Kim Jong-il, who is the destiny and future of our country and people," one officer said.
The peak has gained near mythological status, with official media reporting "natural wonders" linked to Kim's birthday. For his 60th birthday in 2002, a halo purportedly appeared in the sky above the leader's birthplace, and it snowed for exactly 60 days and dumped exactly 60 centimeters of snow on the spot, North Koreans claim.
Will such a wonder occur on 19 February at Niyazov’s birthday celebrations?