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Turkmenistan: Country Setting Out On Its 'Own Path'

The Central Asian region is worried about the spread of the kind of militant Islam practiced by Afghanistan's Taliban movement. Just north of Afghanistan, in Turkmenistan, a nationalist -- but not religious -- redefinition of the country is taking place. Measures backed by the country's president will end performances of Western-style ballet and opera in Turkmenistan on the grounds they are alien to Turkmen culture. There are also signs that non-Turkmen forms of attire are on the way out.

Prague, 20 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan is becoming a more "Turkmen" place. Two weeks ago, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov said that the former Soviet republic should dispense with Western-style ballet and opera. He described the two art forms as not "appealing" to the Turkmen national mentality.

Niyazov's statement came as a human rights monitoring organization reported that schoolgirls in one of Turkmenistan's regions, many of them not ethnic Turkmen, must now dress in Turkmen national attire.

The events are the latest in a string of occurrences that indicate a form of "Turkmenization" is taking place.

President Niyazov was quoted in the April 6 edition of the state daily "Neitralny Turkmenistan" as saying of ballet that "far from everything in its repertoire is in line with the national mentality. Our spectators," he added, "are alien to the sufferings of heroes expressing very unnatural feelings in indiscreet dances."

Niyazov often speaks on behalf of his people, whose true views remain unknown. He has told the world the Turkmen people are not ready for multiparty politics, which explains why there is only one political party -- Niyazov's. He has also told the world his people have unique traditions, which explains why they have not yet opted for rapid political reform and democratization.

Last year, Niyazov told his people there were too many hospitals in Turkmenistan, and he closed down many of them. He recommended traditional Turkmen cures like tea instead of conventional medicines. He said that the health workers and teachers who became superfluous could find work in other sectors. Tens of thousands were laid off. Niyazov also decided that the country's Academy of Sciences was of little use to the people. It closed in 1998.

In place of ballet and opera, Niyazov said, will come drama and a music theater "more responsive to national feeling [and written by] contemporary Turkmen authors."

At the start of this month, Turkmenistan apparently began ridding itself of outside influence in another area. Vitaly Ponomorov, the executive director of the Moscow-based Information Center for Human Rights in Central Asia, told RFE/RL about reports of decrees his organization has received.

"We received reports from [the region of] Dashoguz -- where 30 percent of the people are Uzbeks and other non-Turkmen groups -- that the authorities demanded from parents that all schoolgirls, regardless of nationality, wear Turkmen national attire or else they would not be allowed to attend classes."

Ponomorov said his organization only has reports about the new dress code from one region, Dashoguz, and it's not clear whether this is a new nationwide policy. But in the past moves made by officials in one province are copied by officials around the country.

The Turkmen government has already restricted access to the Internet by making a state body the only licensed Internet provider. Media is under state control and there are countrywide campaigns aimed at stamping out opinions contrary to those of the government. Niyazov is currently working on a book, the "Rukh Name," which will be released later this year and contains instructions for proper behavior and morality in the country.

Ponomorov says the closing of opera and ballet and the introduction of a Turkmen dress code for schoolgirls is in keeping with the government's goal of creating a unique society. What sort of society this will be remains an open question. Niyazov has often said his country is traveling on its own path toward democracy, but the government's means of reaching this goal are unclear to many.

Ironically, the closing of ballet and opera and the demand for national dress in schools are reminiscent of the policies of Afghanistan's Taliban movement. The militia has banned education for girls, prohibited music, and recently destroyed centuries-old statues of the Buddha the Taliban considered "un-Islamic."

In Afghanistan, what Taliban leader Mullah Omar says is correct automatically becomes correct for the people living in Taliban-controlled areas. In Turkmenistan, when Niyazov says something is not "appealing," it automatically becomes officially unattractive.

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