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Central Asia: Personality Cults Often Take Cultural Identity Too Far

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, expectations that new democracies would emerge in its place were strong, both in the West and in Central Asia. A decade later, however, these expectations appear to have faded as the leaders of these states have become increasingly authoritarian. In addition, cults of personality have emerged around Central Asian leaders, often leading to abuses of power.

Washington, 30 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The presence of a leader with a strong personality can help a country realize its identity as it struggles with the challenges of independence, such as Mohandas Gandhi in India during the 1940s.

But analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say that Central Asia's leaders often use their strong personalities solely to enhance their political control.

Turkmenistan is a good example. President Saparmurat Niyazov has declared himself to be Turkmenbashi -- literally "the Turkmens' head." A colossal golden statue of "Turkmenbashi" sits on a motorized pedestal in the capital, Ashgabat, making him appear to summon the sun at dawn and bid it farewell at dusk.

Niyazov also has written a long poem called "White Wheat," dedicated to Turkmenistan's harvest. In it, he describes the wheat as "the creation and inspiration of the Turkmen heart, honor for the farmer, and glory for the state."

The poem has been widely circulated, and the Turkmen media have declared it a masterpiece. State-run television is also offering to pay an unspecified sum to whoever composes music suitable to accompany Niyazov's work. The competition was announced by Gulnabat Ovezova on a recent broadcast of "Vatan," or "Motherland," the daily television news program in Turkmenistan: "We are sure that the poem written by our beloved and caring leader Turkmenbashi will find a proper place among the poetic heritage. Today, the government announced a competition among composers for the best music for the poem. According to the rules of the competition, the winner will receive a big award."

A similar personality cult exists in Uzbekistan. Students are tested on their knowledge of books authored by President Islam Karimov. Almost everyone in public life, from members of parliament to university professors, liberally quote the Uzbek leader, beginning their sentences by saying, "As our respected president has said..."

In Kazakhstan, too, the political elite regularly flatters President Nursultan Nazarbaev. Several members of parliament recently tried to nominate Nazarbaev for a Nobel Prize but could not garner a majority of legislators to vote in favor of the initiative.

Supporters of Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov fared no better in trying to nominate him for the Nobel Prize in April 2001. But in 1998, the Tajik parliament adopted a law limiting the use of the word "president" to the country's head of state, meaning the heads of companies and other organizations in Tajikistan had to change their titles to "chairman" or "executive."

But that effort failed, too. The law was annulled because of local and international criticism.

Despite the sometimes farcical nature of these cults of personality, analysts say the objects of these cults are serious about maintaining and enhancing their power. And they say it is not surprising that such personality cults would develop in a region like Central Asia.

Ian Bremmer is the president of the Eurasia Group, a research and consulting organization in New York that specializes in Central Asia and the Caspian region. He said personality cults are frequently permitted by a people as they work to establish their cultural identities, particularly after long periods of colonization. "When you have no history of institutions, you try to invest a sense of legitimacy and try to create a sense of tradition, statehood, and strength with the most visible components of the new state you have. And the obvious thing you can do [about] that is to, not deify, but certainly to raise your leader up beyond what would be expected of democratic institutions," Bremmer said.

Martha Olcott agrees. She specializes in Central Asian issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an independent policy research center in Washington, D.C. But she said she believes the personality cults in Central Asia are more political than cultural. "They certainly did not [legitimize] themselves by creating a competitive political system. So what they chose to do to legitimate themselves was to reinterpret the cultures of the countries in order to make it seem more natural that there were very strong leaders at the top," Olcott said.

Olcott said another reason that personality cults thrive in Central Asia is that during Soviet times, people tended to live double lives, publicly pretending to revere their communist leaders while privately adhering to their pre-communist cultures.

Personality cults are not necessarily permanent. Bremer said people in countries where personality cults have been constructed around their leaders eventually become aware of the outside world.

Bremmer believes that political change often occurs after a country is exposed to other cultures and methods of government. He said the countries of Central Asia face this eventuality. "To the extent these countries modernize economically and continue to have more contact with the outside world, I think they'll find it more and more difficult to retain these remnants of glorification of local leaders," Bremmer said.

Bremmer said this is happening now in Uzbekistan. He noted the presence of U.S. troops in support of the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, and that the government in Tashkent has permitted the activities of nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, that promote health, women's issues, and environmental matters. "And I think you're already seeing that, even in Uzbekistan in the past six months, once you had U.S. bases there, and you had lots of Americans coming in and out and spending more time in Uzbekistan, you also see an increase in NGOs. And you see an expansion and diffusion of information from the outside world, and that requires the Uzbek government to respond in some way," Bremmer said.

Olcott disagrees. She said the outside world -- in this case, the United States -- must want to influence the Uzbeks and other Central Asians. For now, she said, the American government seems reluctant to get involved in local politics. "I think the U.S. has the capacity to change the situation in Central Asia. At least it has the capacity to try to change the situation in Central Asia, and it might find itself leaving in frustration if it did. But I don't think that the U.S. is really trying to affect the political environment in these countries in any way that was likely to be effective," Olcott said.

Still, Olcott said she does not expect the personality cults to last indefinitely. And Bremmer said he believes they will fade once the countries in the region become more comfortable with the rule of law. But he stressed that establishing the rule of law will, in itself, be a difficult process.