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Turkmenistan: Emerging From 'An Obsession With Personality'

A golden statue of former Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in Ashgabat (epa) June 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Paul Theroux, the noted American novelist and travel writer, has been to many exotic places, but perhaps none so unusual as the one he details in the May 28 issue of "The New Yorker" -- Turkmenistan.

After numerous attempts, Theroux finally obtained a rare visa to travel around the closed Central Asian nation, before the death in December of President Saparmurat Niyazov. In his article, "The Golden Man: Saparmurat Niyazov's Reign Of Insanity," Theroux refers to Niyazov as "one of the wealthiest and most powerful lunatics on Earth" and describes the capital, Ashgabat, as "an example of what happens when absolute political power, money, and mental illness are combined." Oguljamal Yazliyeva, the director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, recently spoke with Theroux about his impressions of this mysterious country and its people.

RFE/RL: In your article, you mention the name Ogulsapar Muradova, who reported for RFE/RL and who died in Turkmen custody in September 2006. You point out in your article that you know this case from international sources, and it's true the case was widely covered by the international media, including our radio station. And I'm wondering, what did the people you met in Turkmenistan know about the case, or what did you learn about Muradova's case from sources that you might have spoken to during your trip? Or was your only learning about her from the outside?

"Think of all the money they have and how easy it would be to solve the simple problems of roads, communications, housing, hospitals in Turkmenistan. That's the really horrible thing about Niyazov -- he took all this money and used it for himself."

Paul Theroux: Her name was mentioned to me when I was in Turkmenistan -- Muradova. But I didn't find any details until I came back to the [United] States. And even then, there are not many details. She died in mysterious circumstances. It's impossible to know because so little information was released about whether she was killed or whether she died because of neglect, or whether she was tortured. But I think you can assume she was very badly treated. She was alive one day and dead the next. And she was not an unhealthy woman. All the information, this sort of detail, came from outside. I never got any information [in Turkmenistan].

RFE/RL: As is seen in your descriptions, you were greatly impressed by the golden sculptures portraying the late President Saparmurat Niyazov that bore witness to his great personality cult. As in other dictatorships, Turkmenbashi announced himself to be a writer, and his books were published. Government officials in the country usually kept them in their offices and homes as a sign of loyalty to the leader. His book "Rukhnama" was the main book that should be taught at all schools. There is an interesting fact that foreign businessmen used it for their own benefit by translating "Rukhnama" into their own languages. Niyazov and his ministers stated that it is the people of Turkmenistan who glorified his personality cult. My question is, who is to blame here? Only the Turkmen people or the international community, as well, who for their own benefit let the personality cult flourish and the dictatorship strengthen. What's your opinion on that?

Theroux: That's a good question.... He's leader of the country, so how he goes on being the leader of the country is, of course, the responsibility of lots of people. Everyone who does business with him, in fact.

Paul Theroux (AFP file photo)

As far as the book goes, his book is silly. If you read it, if you're a writer, as I am -- I read the book and I say, this is pure silliness. The history is inaccurate. The opinions are silly. The autobiography is also inaccurate. It's pure self-glorification. And his cult of personality wasn't just personality. He saw himself as a hero. As a hero of the Turkmen people. And he presented himself as a hero. So who kept him in power? I mean, he died in power, so he wasn't deposed, although there was an assassination attempt. The businessmen who translated his books into their language, I heard that this was done. I don't have any examples of it, and I'd be interested to know who did it.

RFE/RL: I know in the Czech Republic, one of the businessmen translated the book into the Czech language. And we never saw the book in the shops in Prague. It was just translated for the purpose of presenting Niyazov some copies of the book and presenting it to the leader and to show that it was translated into the Czech language.

Theroux: Yes, that's ridiculous, isn't it? It's ridiculous, but it's a way of gratifying Niyazov's ego. It doesn't keep him in power. I mean, a businessman who translates the book isn't helping him stay in power. He's just flattering him. The people who are keeping him in power, of course, are the people who are doing business with him. People could refuse to buy the natural gas, or they could refuse to sell him parts. Or they could forbid their workers to work on the natural-gas pipeline.

What interested me about Turkmenistan is that the Turkmen people are very rarely involved in the technical areas of natural-gas exploration. Most of those [people] are from other countries. They're from Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines. A lot of them are from England, from Great Britain. So if you're looking for people who are propping up the regime, it would be everyone who does this essential work. If there was an embargo on natural-gas workers, the country would fail. So it's a place where the technical workers that I saw come from outside the country and, of course, the money comes from outside the country.

But the responsibility for his being in power, the ultimate responsibility, lies with the people. You can't really have another country.... Although people talk about regime change, I think it would be a big mistake if another country went in and said, "Well, this man is a fool and an egotist and he's insane, let's get rid of him." If that were the case, there would be a lot of people on Earth to get rid of.

But as far as the "Rukhnama" goes, I think the book is merely a symbol of his stupidity and insanity. It's a symbol of his weak mind. I'm sure you've read it. You can see there's nothing in it. The more you look at it, the less you see. It's strange that people had to memorize it. It's a silly book.

RFE/RL: What do you think the West should know most of all about Turkmenistan?

Theroux: The main thing that the West should know about Turkmenistan is that it exists. Most people have no idea that it exits. They know where Turkey is, vaguely, but Turkmenistan is an unknown place. They simply don't know it.

[Before] my piece appeared in "The New Yorker" magazine, lots of people said, "Where is it?" So I explained in the piece where it is, as you can see. And what people need to know is that it exists, that it's a huge place, that it's potentially a very rich place, and that the people are extremely hospitable and they're also very welcoming. Ninety percent are Muslim, but they're not the stereotyped Muslims of the American demonized imagination. I found them very mild, very soft tempered, very good to each other, very hospitable. The food is good. The countryside is rugged, but the people have found a way of living in it. The history is very dramatic. Everything about it I found worthy of interest.

Late President Saparmurat Niyzaov in 2005

Americans are extremely ignorant of world geography. I've been a traveler for 45 years. I've written about places for 45 years. And my conclusion is that [when] I write about a place, no one knows where it is. And it's not only Turkmenistan, it's many other places. They have no idea of what the world is like. So what they need to know, in a way, about Turkmenistan, is what they need to know about the world, which is that Turkmenistan is not like any other place. It is itself, and the people have an interesting language, they have a rich culture, they have a glorious history. And this one man [Niyazov] has, more or less, well, for a while, hijacked it.

So if I write a piece like this -- this is a very long piece in a magazine that's read by millions of people. So that helps. It helps. Not that I'm putting [Turkmenistan] on the map, but it makes it more interesting. When it was a Soviet republic it was just a neglected place. But also Turkmenistan has to be a place that welcomes people there. It's very hard to get a visa [to go] there. It was just such a lot of trouble to get a visa. I was turned down repeatedly. And I'll probably never be invited back.

You've been to the [United] States. When you were in America, I'm sure people said to you, "Jamal, where do you come from?" And you said, "Turkmenistan." And their next question is...

RFE/RL: "Where is that?!" I had an experience in Texas. I tried to explain to a student that Turkmenistan borders Iran, and the next question was, "Where's Iran?" I thought that Iran was better known than Turkmenistan because of its nuclear issues and some others but...

Theroux: You see, America is the center of the world, or so we think. So people don't trouble to find out. But anyway, that's why I'm a writer, to help people understand. I was very interested in the reaction of Turkmen people who had studied in the [United] States -- what they thought of America, where they went. And a very common theme is that people talked about the families. The family is a very strong unit in Turkmenistan. In America, it's not so strong. The respect within the family is unusually strong in Turkmenistan and, as you know in America, and also in Europe, the family is not a very strong unit.

RFE/RL: Did you have enough time to meet various Turkmen professionals, like writers, journalists, or even students?

Theroux: Yes, I did. I met more writers and students than I did other people, [such as] farmers, which I would have liked to have met -- farmers and, you know, horse breeders and other people. But not enough time. But I met plenty of students. I met very nice students. And I should say that I felt very sorry for people who lacked so much information, who were so cut off from the world. And that was the other thing that Niyazov did. He cut people off. And he cut off the flow of information. So that's something that [RFE/RL is] helping to correct.

RFE/RL: My last question, please. What is your vision of Turkmenistan in 10 years, let's say?

Theroux: That's a hard one. That's a very hard one. But I would say that it all depends on the leadership. If you asked me what I think about this country, about the United States, or the Czech Republic, or Germany, or England, or India, it would all be how are they governed. So if Turkmenistan is fairly governed.... Think of all the money they have and how easy it would be to solve the simple problems of roads, communications, housing, hospitals in Turkmenistan. It would be so easy because they have so much money.

That's the really the horrible thing about Niyazov -- he took all this money and used it for himself. The money is still flowing in. There's no end to it, because there's an almost unending supply of natural gas. If someone responsible who cares about the people of Turkmenistan, who really cares about their welfare -- education and health -- spends the money to help them, it would be simple.

The family mausoleum of President Saparmurat Niyazov in his hometown, Kipchak (AFP file photo)

Most countries that I traveled in, most countries, are badly governed. Most countries have bad governance. By that I mean they have governments that really do not serve the people. Even the American government, we've spent $500 billion in Iraq -- $500 billion. And I live in a town where the library needs money, the roads need to be fixed, lots of things like that. But we've spent $500 billion in Iraq. That's not serving the American people.

But it's not only that. Burma is an example. Laos is an example. China doesn't have an elected government. They're involved in a lot of things. So China does what they want. The Sudan. You name a country. Even the best ones are not particularly well governed. So you have to think of Turkmenistan like that. Turkmenistan is very badly governed, but so are so many other countries.

And they're not even the countries like Zimbabwe, [which], of course, is badly governed, or Kenya, or Zambia. Of course, they are badly governed. But also other countries -- Venezuela. And I think the United States. We have a very unpopular president who does things his own way.

So it's wrong only to think of Turkmenistan as a strange place. Many places are strange in somewhat the same way. One of the biggest mistakes that can be made in any country is to name an airport or name a river or name something after a living person. This is something that Niyazov did. So Turkmenbashi this and Turkmenbashi that. But we do that in America. I was recently in Houston, Texas, and the airport in Houston, Texas, is the George H.W. Bush -- that's [U.S. President George W.] Bush's father -- the George H.W. Bush Airport. Well, to me, that's a bit like Niyazov. Maybe not as crazy as Niyazov, or as cruel as Niyazov, but that's a bit of the same thing.

So you can't criticize Niyazov too much. You have to see that he's part of a tendency. That's a tendency. And the people who criticize him have also to look at places like the George Bush Airport and say, "Well, what's the story with that?" Or in his lifetime, [former U.S. President] Ronald Reagan -- there was Reagan airport and Reagan this and Reagan that and the Reagan Library. They were also named after him. So I'm against that. And I also think that that's also part of, maybe not a cult of personality, but that's an obsession with personality. You should name it after dead people, people who are dead, and people who are really great -- writers, thinkers, scientists -- not politicians.

Saparmurat Niyazov, 1940-2006

Saparmurat Niyazov, 1940-2006

Turkment President Saparmurat Niyazov (

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RFE/RL's coverage of Turkmenistan.

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