Turkmenistan is ruled by one of the most repressive regimes in the world. After an ephemeral period of liberalization following the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the country has progressively isolated itself from the rest of the international community, stifling all forms of dissent. Opponents of President Saparmurat Niyazov have been either jailed or forced into exile. Religious and ethnic minorities are mercilessly hounded, and the independent media muzzled. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch was one of the few Western journalists who attended last week's Caspian Sea summit in Ashgabat. In the following story, he relates his impressions of the Turkmen capital.
Ashgabat, 3 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- To the traveler familiar with the former Soviet Union, the capital of Turkmenistan offers an unusual sight, especially when flown over at night.
In contrast to most former Soviet capitals, which inevitably plunge into darkness as soon as the sun sets, the city of Ashgabat glitters from sunset to daybreak like a diamond necklace sparkling from the depths of a black velvet backdrop.
That there is not a single nighttime stroller on the deserted avenues to admire the artistically lit public buildings covered in white marble, or to hear the continual murmur of the numerous public fountains, does not seem to matter. What matters is the impression of public wealth this profusion of water and electricity might leave with the hurried or inattentive visitor.
In the midst of this lavish show, a golden, rotating statue of the master of ceremonies, President Saparmurat Niyazov, dominates the Arch of Neutrality, the rocket-shaped monument that celebrates Turkmenistan's stated nonalignment policy.
Niyazov also keeps a watchful eye on his fellow citizens from the countless portraits that decorate almost every building in this city of 400,000. State television broadcasts endless addresses made by the "Great Turkmenbashi" or "Great Leader of the Turkmens" -- as official propaganda refers to Niyazov -- interspersed with folk singers and poets praising his wisdom and constant care for his people.
News broadcasts invariably start with the same excerpt from one of Niyazov's old speeches, in which he urges his countrymen to work hard for the benefit of the country, to live in peace with its neighbors, and to defend Turkmenistan's neutrality.
Before reading the headlines -- all dedicated to the deeds of Niyazov -- the newscaster then recites what sounds like a profession of faith in the country's leader.
"May the best wishes of our beloved 'serdar' (leader) materialize in the golden century of the Turkmens (the 21st century that Niyazov says should bring prosperity to his country). May the Great Turkmenbashi, who works day and night for the sake of his country and people, remain alert and in good health. May his sound plans become reality. And now, let us start our news bulletin."
Assigned to cover the Caspian Sea summit that took place last week (23-24 April), I and Aliriza Taheri from RFE/RL's Persian Service were met at the Ashgabat airport -- named after Turkmenbashi (Niyazov), as is every other public building in the city -- by a reception committee consisting of two smiling young men who presented themselves as Foreign Ministry officials.
Ignoring our protests that we had rooms already booked in downtown Ashgabat, the young men drove us to another establishment built on the outskirts of the city, confiding us to the care of another "Foreign Ministry official" who would act as our guardian angel for the rest of our stay.
Trapped in our golden cage, we had no alternative but to rely on the means of transportation -- buses or taxis -- put at our disposal by our amiable guardians. Travel outside the hotel was discouraged, though not impossible.
During a rare solo escape into downtown Ashgabat, I went to one of the city's few bookshops. Much to my disappointment, the only volumes on sale were eulogies describing in great detail Niyazov's life and deeds, or opuses written by the 62-year-old head of state himself, like the "Rukhnama" or "Book of the Soul," a 400-page spiritual constitution that parliament has declared a holy text and that local religious leaders have likened to the Koran.
But what does Niyazov himself, the main character in this theater of the absurd who has been ruling the country since 1985 -- first as Communist Party boss, then as president -- think about this personality cult?
In a rare meeting with foreign journalists on the sidelines of the Caspian summit, Niyazov pleaded not guilty, claiming -- as so many authoritarian rulers have done before him -- that he cannot prevent his fellow citizens from worshipping him.
"There is a lot of talk about my portraits. But what can I do? I've told them not to do it, not to display these portraits. But if I were a simple citizen and if I had a leader who would give me free gas, free electricity, free water, free salt, almost-free apartments, free public transportation, I would also love him from the bottom of my heart."
The citizens of Ashgabat may have access to free utilities, but they face constant electricity shortages. As for free apartments, Niyazov's grandiose construction projects for the capital -- including an Olympic stadium -- have required the destruction of many homes, whose owners have received little or nothing in compensation.
New residential buildings are currently under construction, notably in Ashgabat's Berzengi southern suburb. But the selling price of these penthouse flats -- from $12,000 to $120,000, according to local residents -- is likely to discourage any potential buyers in a country where government estimates put the average monthly salary at $25 and where 60 percent of the population is believed to live below the poverty rate.
One local resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me of the country's high unemployment and of the difficulty he has had finding a job in Ashgabat. "The government tells us to leave the city and buy land in the countryside. But how are we supposed to pay for that land? And even if we had the money, we would have to pay for the water to irrigate our land."
The Turkmen government does not compile unemployment statistics, but Western analysts generally believe that between 10 and 20 percent of the country's 4.6 million people are jobless.
Niyazov's regime is described as one of the most repressive in the world, continuously stifling all forms of dissent -- whether political or religious.
Adherents of so-called "nontraditional" religious faiths -- Baptists and Shia Muslims, notably -- are harassed. Political opponents are either jailed or forced to leave the country, such as former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who currently lives in Turkey.
Although there is no available data on the number of political prisoners or believers in Turkmen prisons, Western reports suggest scores of them are being held in overcrowded, squalid jails. Niyazov claims less than one dozen petty criminals and corrupt officials are kept in custody.
Despite international criticism over human rights issues, Niyazov has succeeded in raising his international profile in the wake of the U.S.-led war on terror -- a circumstance largely due to Turkmenistan's proximity to Afghanistan and Iran.
On the eve of the Caspian summit, a United Nations delegation visited Ashgabat to discuss with Niyazov the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. The Central Asian leader seized the opportunity to justify the path he has chosen for the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union, blaming democratic countries for what he described as ill-considered political pressure.
"We, of course, turned [for help] to the United States and to Western European countries. All of them stated their conditions, saying that we should set up a multiparty system, that we should start implementing reforms, political reforms, that the state should reduce its control over the economy. They said, 'Accept our conditions first, then we'll see.' They exerted political pressure on us. Maybe they did not understand our local environment. Obviously they did not understand that our country was on the verge of an economic crisis and that our people were on the brink of starvation. This was no politics."
In Niyazov's view, his country has not yet reached the level of economic development that would allow the existence of what he describes as "constructive" opposition.
"Society is following a healthy path. There will be a multiparty system. There will be an opposition. But it will be a healthy opposition. It will be political groups made of organized and lucid people, not of offended people."
The Turkmen leader reportedly promised to authorize pluralistic elections in 2010 -- without opposition candidates, however. Niyazov, who also chairs the government and the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan -- the only political group authorized in the country -- has so far failed to explain how such a pledge could fit with his nomination as president for life 2 1/2 years ago.
Meanwhile, Niyazov's regime has witnessed the defection of several ministers and diplomats in recent months. In addition, the Turkmen president recently dismissed the top leadership of the National Security Committee -- including its chief, Mukhammed Nazarov -- for alleged misuse of power. Defense Minister Gurbandurdy Begenzhov was also reportedly removed from office that same day.
Analysts believe these defections and sackings bode ill for Niyazov's regime. Should they prove right in their assessment, the Turkmen leader might well end up like Pere Ubu, the character invented by 19th-century French absurdist playwright Alfred Jarry, who was forced into exile after years of ruthless domination over the imaginary Kingdom of Polonia.