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Turkmen Leader Orders Predecessor's Statue Removed

The Neutrality Arch capped with a gold statue of the late Saparmurat Niyazov in Ashgabat
ASHGABAT (Reuters) -- Turkmenistan's president has ordered the removal of a prominent statue of former dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, in a move to assert his own authority and chip away at the personality cult of his predecessor.

Niyazov ran the former Soviet Central Asian republic for 21 years, surrounding himself with an elaborate cult of personality before his death in 2006.

Known as Turkmenbashi, or the leader of all Turkmen, Niyazov renamed calendar months after members of his own family.

Since taking power in 2007, President Kurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has reversed some of Niyazov's more bizarre reforms and removed lingering signs of his predecessor's personality cult.

Today, the capital Ashgabat is dominated by giant portraits of Berdymukhammedov who has introduced some market reforms but retained an authoritarian political system. Some critics accuse him of building a cult of his own.

The removal of the statue and the 75-meter-tall Arch of Neutrality tower which it tops will "improve the architectural image of Ashgabat," state-run news agency Turkmen Khabarlary said late on Sunday.

The 12-meter high gold-plated effigy, which rotates to face the sun, is one of the capital's main landmarks and can seen from almost anywhere in the city center. Berdymukhammedov first suggested removing it in 2008.

A new, higher tower will be built in a southern suburb of the city to replace "the tripod" -- a nickname Ashgabat residents have given to the old monument which stands on three legs.