By Rory Mulholland in Ashgabat
The huge personality cult that surrounds Turkmenistan's President
Saparmyrat Niyazov, which already rivals that of Stalin or Mao Zedong, has
been further inflated with the unveiling of what is probably the world's
largest handmade carpet.
The 300 square metre rug, currently being certified by the Guinness Book
of Records, is entitled The 21st Century: The Epoch of the Great Saparmyrat
Turkmenbashi, or "leader of all Turkmen", is the title Mr Niyazov adopted
during his transformation from communist leader of Soviet Turkmenistan to
the independent country's president for life.
The carpet was unveiled in Ashgabat during last week's celebrations to
mark the 10th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union.
Golden statues of the president are dotted throughout the capital
The president also chose the occasion to launch his book, Ruhnama. This
is a collection of his thoughts on Turkmen identity, history and destiny,
and is intended to serve as a spiritual guide for the nation.
"We need to keep Ruhnama as a holy book in our houses," the 61-year-old
president said during the celebrations.
"Ruhnama was issued to eliminate all shortcomings, to raise the spirit
of the Turkmen," he continued.
Mr Niyazov believes that seven decades of Soviet rule debased the
Turkmen people. Remembrance of past glories is needed to set the Turkmen back on course to their great destiny.
He presents himself as the natural heir to the great leaders of the
past. "Halk, Watan, Turkmenbashi" - People, Homeland, Turkmenbashi - is the
slogan that is never far away here.
Giant posters of the president adorn public buildings across the
country. Golden statues of him are dotted throughout Ashgabat, the most
spectacular of which is the 12-metre revolving image of him atop a 23-metre high tower in the city's central square.
A Soviet-style military parade marked the tenth year of independence
"The ideology of the state is to achieve a fusion between the president
and the people," says Thornike Gorbadze, a specialist on Central Asia at
the CERI international political research centre in Paris.
"Niyazov models himself on Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey,"
he adds. "He has succeeded in creating modern Turkmenistan. People never
really identified with the Turkmen nation before now. The country could
easily have fallen into tribal conflict and ended up like Afghanistan after
Mr Gorbadze warns however that "if a real opposition does emerge it will
most likely be a violent one, because Niyazov has shut off all
parliamentary or democratic channels".
People questioned in the street have nothing but praise for their
president. But in private many are resentful.
"Living standards just go down and down," said a doctor in his forties,
who asked to remain anonymous because talking to foreign reporters can land
you in serious trouble with the omnipresent security agency. "The only changes I can see are the buildings springing up everywhere."
Mr Niyazov's flamboyant new buildings are a mix of western and eastern
styles on a grandiose Soviet scale.
Ashgabat has been transformed over the
last few years. Residential streets have been razed to make way for
tree-lined promenades and monuments - mostly honouring the president or his
family - and a huge new central square flanked to the south by a gold-domed
He didn't get enough love as a child, that's why he needs all this attention now
A Turkmen citizen on the president
Mr Niyazov said in a speech last month that the "foundation of a strong
country is education". An increasing part of that education focuses on
learning to love Turkmenbashi.
Schoolchildren have to recite oaths of allegiance to their leader every
day. In Soviet days, university students, regardless of their discipline,
had to take courses on communist doctrine. Today Turkmen students must
attend lectures on subjects such as "The Domestic and International
Politics of Turkmenbashi".
Mr Niyazov did at one point ostensibly try to scale down the personality
cult that surrounds him. He told the media to stop praising him and ordered
state television to remove his logo from the screen.
But the media - all newspapers and broadcasters here are state-run -
appear to have taken his request as a sign that they were not praising him
His logo is still on the screen, and news programmes continue to shun
real news for lengthy accounts of the president's activities and speeches,
alongside reports on the cotton harvest and footage of Turkmen engaged in
Women and children also took part in the parade
Mention of the war in Afghanistan, with which
Turkmenistan shares an 800km border, is rare.
"He didn't get enough love as a child," was one middle-aged citizen's
analysis, given as he watched the Soviet-style military parade in which the
independence anniversary festivities culminated last Saturday.
The president was orphaned at an early age. His father was killed
fighting with the Soviet army during the World War II, and his mother
died in the earthquake that flattened Ashgabat in 1948.
"That's why he needs all this attention now," the citizen added.