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Turkmenistan: Analysis From Washington -- The Politics Of Honorifics

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 1 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A decision by a European academic organization to award Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov with an honorary degree for his commitment to democracy calls attention to the ways in which such honorific titles are used and abused on the international scene.

The European Academy of Information Sciences, based in Brussels, last week announced that it would present Niyazov with a grand doctor of philosophy degree for his "significant contribution to the theory and practice of state structures" and his promotion of "democratic regulation of social processes at the turn of the millennium."

This award has raised eyebrows around the world among those who are aware of Niyazov's record as leader of Turkmenistan. Niyazov -- who styles himself as Turkmenbashi or "father of the Turkmen" -- has banned opposition groups, closed the country's academy of sciences, downsized universities, and sought to exercise total control over his society.

Those who are aware of Niyazov's record are now asking themselves how it is possible that any international organization could give him such an award or bring itself to describe him as committed to democratic change.

The answer is surprisingly simple. Organizations from universities and non-governmental organizations to international bodies, like the United Nations, regularly hand out such awards to foreign leaders. It is the way in which international business gets done.

From the point of view of the organizations which make such awards, this practice gains them broader media coverage than they might otherwise receive and even attracts the attention of those to whom they give awards. Indeed, many organizations may give these awards precisely to be in a position to advance their own agendas with those who receive their awards.

And sometimes that strategy works. Some leaders who receive awards actually have tried to live up to the honor they have received, changing their policies or at least becoming more open to the possibility of such changes.

But many recipients regularly abuse this process. And Niyazov's record suggests that he is very likely to do precisely that. Indeed, when he was named an "intellectual genius" by a United Nations body earlier this year, he made sure that the media in Turkmenistan devoted significant attention to that decision.

Moreover, like many of his predecessors, Niyazov appears certain to claim that this award shows that his critics at home and abroad are wrong, that he is in fact the "democratic" leader he regularly proclaims himself to be. And thus he is likely to argue that organizations at home and governments abroad should stop trying to pressure him and his regime to change.

Even more, there is the danger that the Turkmen leader may conclude that he has a free hand and will treat his own population in an even more authoritarian manner. At the very least, he almost certainly will take any future criticism of his actions less seriously than might otherwise have been the case.

But the most significant impact of such awards to those who would not appear to qualify for them lies elsewhere. Such misplaced honors have the effect of draining the meaning of the words like democracy and thus increasing public cynicism about such terms and the principles for which they stand.

In Turkmenistan and more widely, many people are likely to conclude that democracy has no real meaning if Western institutions are prepared to describe him in that way. And if Turkmen and others reach that conclusion, they are likely to be significantly less prepared to work for it.

That in turn almost certainly will reduce the chances for the spread of human freedom not only in Turkmenistan but elsewhere as well. And it also may have the effect of making those in the societies where such awards are given less confident about what their countries stand for and thus less willing to contribute to the growth of democracy in places that have known little of it up to now.

If that happens, the apparently innocent use of such an honorific will tend to undermine not only the level of human freedom today but make it less likely that there will be more freedom in the future.