Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s first post-Soviet president, was renowned for his eccentricities and for developing a cult of personality even the most strident of dictators could be proud of. Niyazov rigged elections, issued decrees on such things as men’s beards, and appointed himself “Turkmenbashi” (father of all Turkmen).
His successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, has more than kept the cult of personality theme alive. Among other things, he is an accomplished author many times over, an expert on horses, and the “Protector” of the Turkmen people. In late June, Berdymukhammedov celebrated his 55th birthday, with quite a bit of help from throngs of adoring, perfectly organized countrymen and women.
As a journalist from RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service who had the “honor” of being a flower girl during Niyazov’s reign tells it, the young people chosen to perform in these elaborate displays of affection pay a price -- literally.
The journalist, Akmaral (her name has been changed for security reasons), was in 7th grade when she was chosen to be an official admirer of Niyazov.
“A woman came into our class one day in the middle of school,” Akmaral explains. “She pointed at 10 or so people -- ‘you, you, you’ -- and we had to follow her to the gymnasium.”
There, Akmaral and her classmates were lined up and assigned by a nameless state official to different groups who were to perform different acts of praise should the president ever visit. The children were assigned to sections that included dancers, singers, and Akmaral’s group -- flower presenters.
Being selected meant many things, not all of them good. Beyond being essentially conscripted to be an adoring subject, the kids spent dozens (or more) hours in various rehearsals that usually took place during normal school hours. Akmaral says that while many parents fully support and are even honored by the selection of their children to such groups, her parents objected strongly to local officials -- ultimately in vain -- over all the class time missed and the financial cost to the families.
Akmaral attended a private school, so each hour of class missed for “adoration practice” was ostensibly an hour of her parents' tuition money down the drain. In addition, families bear the cost of the dresses and other costumes for the ceremonies in which their children participate. Akmaral says the costs were usually quite modest, but once she had to pay for a traditional hat that the authorities required the group to wear. The hat had to be ordered from the capital, Ashgabat -- for $150.
"This is why so many people from my school were picked for these things," she says. "We went to private school, so the Culture Ministry thought we had money and could afford things like expensive hats."
The ceremonies themselves can be quite trying for the participants, both physically and mentally. Akmaral says the children often had to stand for hours on end -- usually just waiting for Turkmenbashi to either enter or exit a building -- without food or water.
Now, Akmaral is out of school and working, so she no longer has to skip vacations to present flowers to the country’s president. She says that the people picked for such honor groups are expected to be available for them until the end of primary school, and, once at university, students are often “encouraged” to come out to support the president at official gatherings.
Apparently, living in the “Era of Supreme Happiness” can be a lot of work.
-- Zach Peterson