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Turkmenistan: My Personality Cult Is Better Than Yours

  • Farangis Najibullah

A woman relaxes underneath a photo of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at the resort of Avaza.

A woman relaxes underneath a photo of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at the resort of Avaza.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov spent his first months in office in 2007 reversing some of the more controversial policies of his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

He reopened rural hospitals, for example, and expanded access to the Internet (albeit with severe restrictions).

And in one of the most visible changes, he began dismantling the former president's personality cult. Berdymukhammedov, who came to power following Niyazov's death in December 2006, ordered the removal of the numerous monuments and portraits of his predecessor in towns and cities across the country.

He also restored the original names of the months that Niyazov had renamed after himself and his mother.

But it wasn't long before Berdymukhammedov, who won a second term as president on February 12 with a decisive 97 percent of the vote, starting following in Niyazov's footsteps, building a personality cult of his own.

Author Extraordinaire

Large billboards bearing Berdymukhammedov's face now dot Turkmen cities; office walls are adorned with his portraits.
People carry a giant portrait of Berdymukhammedov during Independence Day celebrations in Ashgabat in 2009.

People carry a giant portrait of Berdymukhammedov during Independence Day celebrations in Ashgabat in 2009.

Berdymukhammedov, a dentist and the country's former health minister, also appears to share Niyazov's fondness for writing books. In his five years in office, his name has appeared on tomes covering subjects ranging from health care to his favorite horse breed, the country's famous Akhal-Teke.

The president is reportedly about to launch a new book -- a spiritual guide for the Turkmen nation. According to media reports, the working title is either "Turkmennama" (Book for Turkmens) or "Adamnama" (Book for Humanity).

The book would replace Niyazov's own work on the same subject, "Rukhnama" (Book of the Soul), which was required reading in all Turkmen schools.

Berdymukhammedov appears to be trying to match his predecessor in other areas of adulation, as well.

He had the Council of Elders bestow the formal title of Arkadag (The Protector) upon him. Niyazov bore the title Turkmenbashi (Leader of the Turkmen).
A massive portrait of Berdymukhammedov looms over attendees at an inauguration ceremony for the Palace of Happiness wedding complex in Ashgabat in October 2011.

A massive portrait of Berdymukhammedov looms over attendees at an inauguration ceremony for the Palace of Happiness wedding complex in Ashgabat in October 2011.

The Niyazov era, which lasted from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 until his death in 2006 – has been hailed within the country as its "Golden Age." Likewise, Berdymukhammedov has dubbed his time in power "The Era of Turkmenistan's Great Renaissance."

Share His Fetishes

Berdymukhammedov has also continued Niyazov's tradition of renaming streets, schools, and organizations after his relatives.

A village school in Akhal Province, for example, has been named after the president's grandfather, Berdymukhammed Annaev. The three-story school towers over all other buildings in the village. And unlike many other rural schools in Turkmenistan, it is equipped with modern computers.

And the police unit where the president's father, Myalikguly Berdymukhammedov, once served has been named after him. The elder Berdymukhammedov's office in that unit has been restored and turned into a museum.

Berdymukhammedov's personal tastes also have a habit of becoming national fetishes. Turkmen now celebrate the Day of Akhal-Teke, the horse breed he hails as the nation's "pride and glory."

And when Berdymukhammedov played a love song, "For You, My White Flowers," on national television, the guitar he played was immediately dubbed a "great treasure" and sent to a museum for safe-keeping.

And there are a few other things that have remained the same under Berdymukhammedov's rule: Turkmenistan still has one political party, dissent is not tolerated, and free speech is virtually nonexistent.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report

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