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Friday, 26 October, 2001, 18:41 GMT 19:41 UK
Eyewitness: Celebration amid chaos
Market on the outskirts of Ashgabat
Shoppers at a market on the outskirts of Ashgabat (pictures: Rory Mulholland)
By Rory Mulholland in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Turkmen President Saparmyrat Niyazov appears to have no intention of letting the war in Afghanistan get in the way of grandiose celebrations for the 10th anniversary of his country's independence from the Soviet Union.

The 10-day public holiday he has decreed for the occasion will culminate in a Soviet-style military parade through the capital Ashgabat on Saturday.

Some might wonder what the Turkmen have to celebrate. Living standards here have deteriorated rapidly since independence, with more than half the population now living below the poverty line.

Turkmenistan has, however, managed to avoid many of the ills that have afflicted other former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

Soldiers rehearse for the celebrations
Soldiers rehearse for anniversary celebrations in Ashgabat's central square
Tajikistan went through a civil war between government forces and Islamic militants that cost more than 50,000 lives.

Uzbekistan lives with the threat and occasional military incursions of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

But this largely desert land of about five million people has managed - like a Central Asian North Korea - to hold to an isolated course through the sea of troubles that surrounds it.

The 75-metre Arch of Neutrality in Ashgabat's central square is a symbol of the country's policy of isolation.

Atop the great arch is a revolving golden statue of the president. Mr Niyazov was the communist leader of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, and was later elected president of the newly-independent state, supposedly with the blessing of 99.5% of the voters.

The 75-metre Arch of Neutrality
The 75-metre Arch of Neutrality
He has since adopted the title of Turkmenbashi, or "leader of all Turkmen", and has been nominated president for life.

His personality cult, like his isolationist policies, rival that of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Book published

Giant posters of him adorn buildings across the country. There are golden statues of him throughout Ashgabat, his face is on every banknote, and a growing number of streets, towns, squares and airports are named after him.

For the independence celebrations he has published a book of his thoughts on life in general and on the destiny of his people. The work is meant to serve as a spiritual guide for the nation. In public Turkmen praise him. But in private many express despair.

"It's worse now than in Soviet days," says an office worker in his late thirties, who asked to remain anonymous.

"At least then there was a structure, decisions were made by a party committee. Now everything is at the whim of one man."

Mr Niyazov expressed general support for international steps against terrorism in the wake of the 11 September attacks.

Relief operations

But in contrast to Uzbekistan, where US troops are already in place near the Afghan border, Turkmenistan has made it clear that its bases are not available for military operations in America's declared war on terrorism.

The country has opened its doors enough, however, to allow United Nations agencies and some non-governmental organisations to run their north Afghan relief operations out of its territory.

President Saparmyrat Niyazov stares down from a poster
President Saparmyrat Niyazov stares down from a poster
But this increased humanitarian activity is likely to be the only major change the country will see unless the Afghan conflict takes some entirely unexpected turn.

News of the world outside is limited here. There are no private newspapers or broadcasters.

The state media, whose main purpose appears to be the glorification of the president, reveals little or nothing of events in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world.

Fears 'overblown'

But people are apprehensive about the conflict to the south.

They remember all too well the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when many of their young men were sent to fight and die there during a 10-year occupation. Some are afraid the current crisis might spill over the border.

But such fears seem overblown. The 800-km (500-mile) border with Afghanistan may not be heavily guarded, but the inhospitable desert terrain on both sides is a natural deterrent.

Afghan refugees have traditionally headed for either Iran or Pakistan, and since the current conflict began Mr Niyazov has made it clear that none are welcome in Turkmenistan.

The president has steered a careful line between the two sides in the long-running Afghan conflict, maintaining consulates in Taleban-controlled territory, while allowing only the Northern Alliance to have an embassy in Ashgabat.

Pipeline

Economically, Turkmenistan relies heavily on income from gas and oil resources, but has failed to capitalise on the huge reserves it harbours.

Its current pipeline routes run through Russia, thus limiting Turkmenistan's exports to more lucrative Western markets. There have been numerous new pipeline projects announced over the past decade, but all have failed to materialise.

Niyazov has long eyed Afghanistan as a pipeline route that could be hugely profitable. If some sort of stable state emerges in Afghanistan after the current conflict is over, Turkmenistan stands to gain enormously.

But whatever the fate of his country's wretched southern neighbour, Niyazov appears unconcerned about the future.

War or no war, he has proclaimed that this will be a "Golden Century" for Turkmenistan.

See also:

25 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Turkmenistan: Gateway to the starving
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