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Tuesday, 19 February, 2002, 18:16 GMT
Turkmens to receive 'age' gift
The Turkmenistan President, Saparmurat Niyazov
President Niyazov has ruled the country with an iron fist
All citizens in Turkmenistan who reach the age of 62 can now look forward to receiving a three-day holiday and a small salary, President Saparmurat Niyazov has announced.

The presidential decision honours the age at which the Prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam died. It also coincides with Mr Niyazov's own 62nd birthday.

Arch of Neutrality with President Niyazov's revolving figure on top. Picture: Rory Mulholland
Arch of Neutrality: Considered a symbol of the country's policy
"A person reaching 62 in Turkmenistan largely retains physical courage and an active lifestyle, and simultaneously achieves a spiritual maturity, rich life experience and wisdom," Mr Niyazov was quoted as saying by the French news agency AFP.

However, the occasion may prove elusive to many Turkmen men whose average life expectancy is just 60 years, according to a recent report from the World Health Organization.

Grandiose festivities

Mr Niyazov also said he would reward all Turkmen women on a traditional Woman's day in March.

"Turkmens present gifts at each holiday. Last year... I gave each woman 100,000 manats ($19) and this year I will give each woman 200,000 manats ($38). They will buy a gift for themselves."

On the eve of the president's birthday, 15,000 people - including the country's top leaders and foreign diplomats - attended a traditional lamb sacrifice in Mr Niyazov's native village Kipchak, state television reported.

And the whole country of about five million people was given a day off to mark the occasion.

Personality cult

Mr Niyazov was the Soviet-era leader of Turkmenistan, and was later elected president for life of the newly-independent country.

Golden statue of President Niyazov. Picture Rory Mulholland
Golden statues of the president are dotted across the capital

Mr Niyazov has since adopted the title of Turkmenbashi, or Father of all Turkmen,

His critics accuse him of building a personality cult that can rival that of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Turkmenistan's cities and even a meteorite have been named after Mr Niyazov, whose picture is the most commonly displayed object in the country.

There are golden statues of him throughout Ashgabat, and the 75-metre Arch of Neutrality, with the president's revolving figure on top, is often described as a symbol of the country's isolationist policy.

School children's compulsory reading consists of Mr Niyazov collected works, including his spiritual guide for the nation.

However, Turkmen officials insist their country is on the road to democracy, and Mr Niyazov has already proclaimed this century a "Golden Century" for all Turkmen.

See also:

02 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
The cult of the Turkmen leader
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
13 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Turkmenistan plans desert lake
11 Jan 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Turkmenistan
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