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Turkmenistan: Lions And Tigers And Mozart To Return To Cultural Life

Does the return of opera and other 'foreign' art signal a general opening to the outside world? (ITAR-TASS) To its fans, opera is a sublime expression of emotion conveyed through music and spectacle that has for centuries drawn people to theaters on every continent.

But that was not exactly how the late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov viewed it. In April 2001, less than 10 years after his country became independent, the former Soviet apparatchik declared that opera and ballet were "alien" art forms that had no message for Turkmenistan's people. Opera was filled with "unnatural feelings and indiscreet dances" and had "exhausted its creative life," he said.

And so opera and ballet performances -- and eventually the circus and cinemas -- were closed down, replaced by works based on Turkmen lore and television programs glorifying various parts of Niyazov's life.

It was all part of Niyazov's campaign to transform the former Soviet republic into a bastion of Turkmen heritage. History was rewritten and the state placed an emphasis on all things Turkmen.

This practice was epitomized in Niyazov's book "Rukhname" (Book of the Soul), which glorified the Turkmen nation and provided its people with a guide to proper conduct in Niyazov's Turkmenistan. Those who were not ethnic Turkmen found it increasingly difficult to find employment -- their children were forced to dress in Turkmen clothing and study in the Turkmen language -- and as a result the non-Turkmen population of the country trickled away.

Niyazov's death in December 2006 and Berdymukhammedov's unexpected ascension to the country's top post afterwards raised hopes that change was coming.

Welcome Changes To Old Regime

Berdymukhammedov's announcement that foreign culture was welcome again in Turkmenistan is welcome news to many. Mommak Kuly, a Turkmen artist who now lives in Germany, tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service he hopes Berdymukhammedov's decision will bring performing artists back to Turkmenistan.

"We are so glad about the news that the ban on opera, ballet, and circus has been lifted," Kuly says. "I hope that former theater performers will come back to the theater. It was not good to say that our people didn't understand opera or ballet and ban these arts. It is very important to let the people understand [these things.] This is an art and a culture that help the world understand the nation."

The announcement of the return of the performing arts was also good news to Akmukhammet Saparov, a well-known singer and composer, who stayed in Turkmenistan despite the fact he was officially unable to perform.

"Like other artistic workers, I continued my work as a singer and composer, without 'turning either to the right or to the left,'" Saparov says. "I have been giving concerts to the people, creating songs, and composing music; helping the [young] singers and musicians who need my assistance."

The last Russian-built theater in Ashgabat was demolished in March 2004 (AFP)

Even before he was elected president in February 2007 Berdymukhammedov promised changes, and he has delivered, restoring the education system that Niyazov had cut back, replenishing funding for the health-care system that Niyazov had all but destroyed, and allowing some Internet cafes to open and lifting a number of small restrictions that unnecessarily complicated the lives of Turkmen citizens.

But Berdymukhammedov has stopped short of introducing any of the major changes that many have called for, such as breaking the monopoly that the sole political party, the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, formerly the Communist Party of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, has or allowing independent media to exist.

Some say that Berdymukhammedov inherited one of the most repressive and bizarre governments in the world and that it takes time to make some of the more important changes.

In announcing the return of the performing arts to Turkmenistan, Berdymukhammedov said, "I propose to breathe life back into the lyrical arts in this country."

If he follows through on this promise, Turkmenistan may one day see a return of the many performers who left the country in the last decade -- and they will include non-ethnic Turkmen.

Since Turkmenistan does not produce many movies for the big screen, reopening the cinemas means showing foreign films in theaters that will give citizens a taste of the world outside that has been difficult for them to see.

And the return of the circus also should showcase a source of Turkmen national pride. Berdymukhammedov noted that bringing back the circus will include "national equestrian shows" because -- as for many Central Asians -- the horse enjoys a prominent place in Turkmen history and culture.

Much work still needs to be done to prepare for the return of the performing arts to Turkmenistan. The state opera house was torn down after opera was banned and in its place stands a shopping center.

Berdymukhammedov acknowledged this by saying that it is "time to rebuild and reopen." And this small but important step could be the first stage in ending the government's "Turkmenization" policy.

(RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Jamal Yazliyeva and Guvanch Geraev of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

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