It's been a tastelessly iconic symbol of Turkmenistan since it appeared in 1998: a 12-meter-tall, gold-plated statue of Saparmurat Niyazov, the country's longtime dictator, who also styled himself as "Turkmenbashi," or father of the Turkmen. For years, the statue stood atop a 75-meter-tall arch in the center of the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, dominating the skyline.
Perhaps out of a concern that monumental scale alone was not sufficient for this centerpiece of personality worship, Niyazov arranged for his gold-plated statue to rotate throughout the day so that the Father of the Turkmen was always facing the sun.
But even sun kings die, and when Niyazov was replaced by Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in 2006, there was widespread hope that Turkmenistan's fresh-faced new leader would begin dismantling the Stalin-like cult of personality surrounding Niyazov.
Berdymukhammedov has given optimists some reasons to cheer. In 2008, the new president scrapped the unusual calendar foisted on Turkmenistan by Niyazov, who had taken it upon himself to rename the month of April after his mother.
In 2010, the gold-plated rotating statue disappeared from its place atop the "Arch of Neutrality." Between the symbolic changes and some modest efforts at liberalization, it seemed that reform -- however incremental -- was coming to Ashgabat.
So more than a few Turkmen are concerned now that the Niyazov statue has reappeared on top of a new, taller pedestal on the outskirts of Ashgabat. AFP reports that Asghabat residents saw Turkmenbashi's gilded visage being lifted onto its new perch -- the 95-meter-high "Monument of Neutrality" -- on October 31. The move comes as part of a signature construction campaign undertaken by Berdymukhammedov.
In the years since he took power, Berdymukhammedov has sought to establish his own cult of personality. The president's photo adorns the front page of every local newspaper and the dashboard of every Turkmen taxi. But the reinstallation of the flamboyant Niyazov statue seems to signal a willingness on the part of the current president to honor and preserve the image of his predecessor.
"The return of this monument is directly related to current politics," one Turkmen intellectual told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. "There was a hope that along with this monument the whole old regime and its heritage would go along with it. But that did not happen, and what we are seeing is that these hopes have evaporated, and the return of this monument symbolizes the current direction."
At least one Turkmen observer, however, sees a silver lining around this gilded eyesore. "This monument provokes great interest among tourists who come to Turkmenistan," notes a travel agent based in Asghabat. "For foreign tourists, this is a monument of dictatorship and despotic willfulness. But for us, this is an embarrassment and unfortunately we get popularity with our absurd architectural excesses."
-- Charles Dameron