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Friday, 2 November, 2001, 12:28 GMT
The cult of the Turkmen leader
A poster of the president is carried through the streets of Ashgabat during a parade to mark the tenth anniversary of independence from the USSR
Giant posters of Niyazov are frequently on show in Ashgabat (pictures: Rory Mulholland)
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.

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.

Golden statue of President Niyazov
Golden statues of the president are dotted throughout the capital
The carpet was unveiled in Ashgabat during last week's celebrations to mark the 10th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union.

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.

'Natural heir'

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.

Turkmen soldiers wait beneath a poster of their president
A Soviet-style military parade marked the tenth year of independence
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.

"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 independence."

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".

Unspoken resentment

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.

He didn't get enough love as a child, that's why he needs all this attention now

A Turkmen citizen on the president
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 presidential palace.

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".

Constant adulation

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 enough.

Women and babies take part in a parade to mark the tenth anniversary of independence
Women and children also took part in the parade
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 traditional activities.

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.

See also:

25 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Turkmenistan: Gateway to the starving
26 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Eyewitness: Celebration amid chaos
25 Jan 01 | Media reports
Turkmen leader scorns media praise
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