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Turkmenistan: A Look At Turkmenbashi On His Birthday

A larger-than-life portrait of Turkmenbashi in downtown Ashgabat to mark independence on 27 October 2005 (AFP) Turkmenistan marks Flag Day on 19 February, but more importantly for the country's citizens, it is also Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's birthday. Niyazov, to whom parliament officially gave the title of "Turkmenbashi," literally the "head of the Turkmen," turns 66 on the same day.

PRAGUE, 17 February 2006 -- Like him or not, it is difficult to ignore Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. He rules a mostly desert nation of some 4.5 million people that is rich in natural gas and oil resources. And the way he rules has caught the attention of many people.

A Composer, Too?

These lines from the country's national anthem were purportedly written by Niyazov:

"The great power built by Turkmenbashi,/The great nation is my soul./A crown on its head,/A language most secret,/Let the world live/And you with it, Turkmenistan."

"There are still trappings of Soviet power that have also remained and continue to weigh down the country and prevented it from developing on any front."

Though it is officially Flag Day that is being celebrated 19 February, everyone in Turkmenistan knows why it is a holiday, including the telephone operators who this week greeted callers with the following: "Congratulations on the upcoming birthday of the dear president and Flag Day."

Cult Of Personality

Niyazov is an enigma. Among the many awards he has received is Turkmenistan's "Altyn Ai" medal for being a hero of the country six times -- the only person in the country to merit the accolade. His face graces the front page of every state newspaper, the corner of the television screen on state television, and his portrait is on the national currency. Practically his every movement is covered by Turkmen media.

He has also been named an enemy of the press, a violator of human rights, and his style of governing the country has been compared to Josef Stalin and North Korea's communist leaders.

Steve Sabol of the University of North Carolina is a specialist on Turkmenistan. He told RFE/RL that Soviet leaders must have seen something in Niyazov that qualified the man to be the head of the Soviet republic of Turkmenia.

"He's a very complex character; very sort of a fascinating fellow in some ways," Sabol said. "What I've always been curious about is would it have been possible to predict this cult of personality, this cult of the individual that he has created because in the mid-1980s there had to -- during the reform era of perestroika and glasnost -- there had to be some characteristic that appealed to Soviet authorities."

A geologist by training, Niyazov was appointed the first secretary of the Communist Party of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic in 1985. He replaced Muhamednazar Gapurov, who was caught in an anticorruption drive. Niyazov was therefore viewed as worthy to carry out Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms.

But Sabol said that following independence in 1991, those qualities seem to have vanished. "The problem is that since independence, whatever that appealing characteristic might have been has been utterly absent," he said.

Erika Dailey, the director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, said Niyazov's Turkmenistan can point to some successes.

More Bad Than Good

"What's changed on the positive score is obviously that Turkmenistan has gained independence," she said. "It has also formed its own identity as an independent state which allows it certain prerogatives legally and diplomatically. In principle, it has taken repossession of its natural resources, which are significant, certainly in the natural gas sector. And one could argue that its adoption of a policy of neutrality or, as it is known, positive permanent neutrality, has also been a plus in the sense that the Soviet Union was a highly militaristic society and the policy of neutrality has greatly reduced the sense of militarism in the country and the drain on its resources as a result."

Niyazov meeting with Turkmen children in September 2005 (TASS)

But she added that the negative aspects of Niyazov's rule far outweigh these few successes.

"There are still trappings of Soviet power that have also remained and continue to weigh down the country and prevented it from developing on any front," Dailey said. "Overwhelmingly, that's political repression and wide-scale human rights violations. You continue to see show trials very much in the Stalinist spirit. The Ministry of National Safety, essentially the unreformed KGB, continues to operate unchecked and wields enormous power and control within the country. Even some of the worst traditions of the Soviet period, like [the] incarceration of perceived dissidents in psychiatric hospitals, continue."

Perhaps the most tragic part of Niyazov's rule is yet to come. Niyazov has undergone surgery for phlebitis (inflammation of a vein), had multiple bypass heart surgery, eye surgery, and is known to have respiratory problems. Despite this, there is no heir apparent in the government. Turkmenbashi has kept anyone in the country from gaining too much power or popularity. Many experts predict widespread unrest in Turkmenistan when Niyazov dies. Some, like Sabol, believe other governments like Russia or neighbors Iran, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, will be eager to insert their influence into Turkmenistan in the post-Niyazov days and thereby have more control over Turkmenistan's gas and oil wealth.

(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)

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