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Turkmenistan: My Personality Cult Is Better Than Yours

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.

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By Farangis Najibullah
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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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Sey from: World
February 14, 2012 15:10
Oh, don't you worry my dear friends! Turks are all like that, they apparently enjoy worshiping people as if they're Gods. Look at Kemal in Turkey, Aliyev in Azerbaijan, Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, Niyazov and Berdymukhammedov in Turkmenistan, and I also believe Karimov in Uzbekistan would fall under this list.

Besides, these are all silly names they get. Arkadag, Turkmenbashy? Who wants those obviously idiotic names, when you could have one like "Ataturk", Father of the Turks? Huh? How's that?

How about having a statue of you in every single city, a portrait of you in every single place, banning every media that has ugly things about you posted on them, and the mere criticism of your authoritarian 15 year government can land any citizen in prison?

Oh, these Turks...


by: Expert from: Europe
February 14, 2012 20:35
All this idiotic ideology is organized by Viktor Hramov (behind the scenes).

by: Scarborough from: Indiana, US
February 22, 2012 20:24
As with far too many articles written about Turkmenistan, this one demonstrates a general lack of knowledge about both the place under discussion and the "trends" it sets out to establish and describe. Notwithstanding the broader issue that arises from focusing attention on Turkmenistan exclusively through the lens of "strangeness" (be that "cults of personality" or "writing spiritual books" or otherwise), Ms. Najibullah's article makes a number of factual errors that are worth noting.

First, she writes that "[Berdymukhammedov] reopened rural hospitals, for example, and expanded access to the Internet (albeit with severe restrictions)." This is both false and misleading. False, because Turkmenistan's rural hospitals *were never closed,* no matter what the western press reports on this. This was true under Niyazov; I worked in and around rural hospitals in the country in late 2006, and there was nothing to "reopen" in 2007. Misleading, because Berdymukhammedov did in fact expand access to the internet, and noting "severe restrictions" seems to imply otherwise.

Second, Ms. Najibullah notes that "Large billboards bearing Berdymukhammedov's face now dot Turkmen cities; office walls are adorned with his portraits." This is nothing new. These billboards appeared in early 2007. Nor did Berdymukhammedov ever "order" anyone to pull down pictures of Niyazov, or *not* put up pictures of himself. The concept that Berdymukhammedov was a "reformer" and different in character, if not in content, from his predecessor, was something primarily dreamed up, and written about, in the west in 2007 and 2008. If the large poster, to cite just one example, I recall from March 2007 in Mary across from the aerovokzal (Berdymukhammedov signing a law) has only been noticed by western sources now, five years later, I hardly think this makes it demonstrative for the "political trends" or much of anything else in the country.

Third, Najibullah writes that "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)." This rumour has been cited in the Russian press for years (for example, last year: http://lenta.ru/news/2011/09/06/turkmen/, although this story, too, was ultimately linked back to RFE / RL and without any real sourcing. It's unclear what the basis for the rumour is, other than the hope that it might soon be as easy to mock Berdymukhammedov as it has been to mock Niyazov. Perhaps there is simply a need to develop "political trends" for Turkmenistan, and failing any real information, we are left to speculate about to what degree Berdymukhammedov is similar, or not similar to the media image of Niyazov.

Altogether, the majority of what Ms. Najibullah cites - the renaming of streets, villages, et cetera - is standard fare in many countries, including not a few western countries. It's unclear why this is either (a) notable, or (b) significant in terms of a new "cult of personality." Moreover, the more frequently news sources, such as RFE / RL talk about "cults of personality" (at least here its marginally better than "golden statues") the less we actually talk about the country's real problems. Ms. Najibullah is right that in Turkmenistan "dissent is not tolerated, and free speech is virtually nonexistent." Better that we remember that than pay attention to the smoke-screen thrown up by the Turkmen political elite.
In Response

by: Bayramgeldi from: Ashgabat
February 27, 2012 21:25
I am sooo sorry, but you are totally mistaken! I was born in Turkmenistan, I have lived in Turkmenistan and I am living in Turkmeinstan. I lelt the country just a year ago.

---"Turkmenistan's rural hospitals were never closed?" Are you really sure? All the rural population of the country knows that the hospitals in the villages were shot down mercilessly. And where did you get your info? Which district did you stay? I am really surprised.

---Have you ever used Internet in Turkmenistan?

--- Turkmenistan displayed the big portrait of new upcoming book TURKMENNAMA on 27 October, 1983, it was broadcasted on TV and all the members of the Ministry of Culture knows about the upcoming miracle....Because they are writing it.

Anyway, I am not trying to prove anything. But what makes me surprised is that: You have written loooong paragraphs in order to show the black as white. But do you really believe in what you are saying? I would never expect to hear these words from the Westerner. I was tired of these lies inside the country 24/7 nonstop. And know I am hearing it from an american.

I want to leave the Earth, but cannot.

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