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Monday, 13 November, 2000, 17:54 GMT
Turkmenistan plans desert lake
Mr Niyazov
Mr Niyazov has created a gargantuan personality cult
By Eurasian affairs analyst Steven Eke

Saparmurat Niyazov was the Soviet-era leader of Turkmenistan, in central Asia. He is now known as Turkmenbashi, or Father of all Turkmen, and also President-For-Life.

He is the inspiration for some truly grandiose ideas, including the recently announced creation of a 2,092 square kilometre (1,300 square mile) artificial lake in the Karakum Desert.

Map of Turkmenistan
The idea might seem eccentric, but the background is more sinister.

According to the official explanation, it will take up to 20 years to build the proposed lake in the Karakum Desert.

It will take the form of a huge reservoir, the idea behind the scheme being that it would improve Turkmenistan's agriculture and guarantee its water security, a key concern for central Asia's leaders.

But Turkmen and foreign scientists are worried. They say the scheme could wreck the region's already fragile environment.

They say the lake would pollute massive swathes of land with salt, and that most of the water would evaporate from an open-air lake anyway.

Personality cult

But in this state, the people do whatever Turkmenbashi tells them to. They do not have much choice, since Turkmenistan's daily life is based on Mr Niyazov's personality cult, which has reached gargantuan proportions.


Even a meteorite that landed in the north of the country was given his name

Many of the former Soviet republics have found introducing a market economy and democracy difficult, but to outside observers, Turkmenistan can seem rather bizarre.

Mr Niyazov, whose picture is the most commonly displayed object in the country, dominates every aspect of life.

Turkmen men
Few people will dare criticise the president
Just recently, Mr Niyazov had his whole cabinet take a walk along Serdar Yoly, a 36km path on the outskirts of the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat.

The walk was to mark Health Day, a public holiday declared by Mr Niyazov after he recovered from a heart attack some years ago. Only Mr Niyazov completed the route - in his presidential helicopter.

Elections to the rubber-stamp parliament draw more than 99% of voters.


There are no opposition political parties and no independent press

My Niyazov has a television channel named after him called Epoch of Turkmenbashi and even a meteorite that landed in the north of the country was given his name.

Eccentricities aside, the reality is grim. School children's compulsory reading consists of Mr Niyazov's collected works.

The internet is highly restricted. Turkmenistan's citizens are not allowed to hold bank accounts abroad. University entrance requirements filter out applicants who cannot prove their ethnic purity going back three generations.

There are no opposition political parties and no independent press. The government recently called for foreigners to be more closely monitored during their trips to the country.

Whims

But they are lucky - Turkmenistan's own people are not even allowed to travel abroad without official permission. The economy is a disaster with foreign investors staying away, and the country can barely feed itself.

Against this grim background, few people in Turkmenistan will dare speak out against Mr Niyazov's plan. Turkmen officials insist their country is on the road to democracy. They say it will take exactly another 11 years.

But given the scientists' warnings, Turkmenistan's environment may pay a high price for the whims of the country's Perpetual President.

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See also:

26 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
Turkmen government goes on health walk
07 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
Turkmen leader names channel after himself
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