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Turkmenistan: Independence Finds Little Cheer

Today (Oct. 27) marks the ninth anniversary of Turkmen independence. In October 1991, President Saparmurat Niyazov predicted the country's oil wealth would turn it into a "second Kuwait" and that everyone would be driving a luxury car. RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier reports that this is as far from reality now as it was then.

Prague, 27 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan marks nine years of independence today (Oct 27), but the country's short history as an independent state offers little reason for celebration.

For the people of this large and mostly arid Central Asian state, life remains hard.

The average monthly wage is under $20. Gas, electricity, and water are free but often are rationed and for many, even in the capital Ashgabat, there are long hours without any of these conveniences. Joblessness and crime are on the rise, as is drug abuse.

The country's Academy of Sciences is closed. Those aspiring to higher education in the remaining universities must undergo a rigorous family check going back three generations. There are almost no opportunities for students to travel abroad because the government fears the ideas of both democratic and Islamic societies.

Medical care has also suffered. Clinics in rural areas were recently closed on Niyazov's orders, leaving regional centers as the only place to find treatment.

Politically, there is little room for free expression. Many opposition leaders have fled the country. Those remaining are in jails or psychiatric hospitals. There has been and still is only one political party in Turkmenistan -- the National Democratic Party -- led by Niyazov himself.

The president last year promised to make democratic changes and said he would grant the parliament more power. But the first act of that new parliament was to make Niyazov leader "for life." Niyazov now says the Turkmen people are not ready for democratic reforms.

The international community seems to be engaged in a "love-hate" relationship with Niyazov and his government.

Foreign businesses are anxious to profit from the country's oil and gas wealth. But foreign governments are reluctant to endorse Niyazov's autocratic ruling style.

Even other Commonwealth of Independent States countries do not actively court ties with Turkmenistan, preferring to keep their relationship restricted to economics.

Non-governmental watchdog organizations are nearly unanimous in their criticism. Turkmenistan remains on the black lists of Helsinki Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and other international human rights and media organizations.

Niyazov's lavish lifestyle stands in stark contrast to the vast majority of his countrymen.

His presidential palace was built by a French firm at a cost of $80 million. There are statues to Niyazov everywhere, including one on the "Arch of Neutrality" in Ashgabat. The arch is crowned with a revolving statue of the president, timed always to face the sun.

Parliament voted in 1993 to give Niyazov the title of Turkmenbashi, the leader of all Turkmen. Niyazov proudly uses this name and is commonly referred to as Saparmurat Turkmenbashi.