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Wednesday, 29 May, 2002, 11:23 GMT 12:23 UK
Turkmen live by leader's book
Bookshop, Turkmenistan
The president's book is on sale everywhere

Eleven years after gaining independence, one thing remains very much the same in the Central Asia republic of Turkmenistan: the iron grip of President Saparmurat Niyazov.

If anything, the imprint of the 62-year old former communist party chief - and now president for life - is more pervasive than ever.

Almost every large building carries either a giant portrait or golden bust of the man who now styles himself Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great. Turkmenbashi means "leader of the Turkmen".

In the past two years, a book written by the president has become a required part of school and university curricula.

The book, Ruhnama, is a 400-page blend of history, myth and philosophy meant to bolster a spirit of national consciousness among ethnic Turkmen, who make up nearly 80% of the country's five million population.

10th graders like Ene Tuylieva, a pupil at Ashgabad's School No. 27, study Ruhnama twice a week.

"Ruhnama is a sacred book that was created by our leader, Suparmarat Turkmenbashi," says Ene. "From this book we learn about our culture, about our traditions that we lost during Soviet times".

'Spiritual torch'

In Ashgabad's handful of bookstores, Ruhnama has pushed almost everything else from the shelves, while state-run television is used extensively to popularise the president's work.

School class
Ruhnama is a compulsory subject in schools
No government official's office is complete without a copy of Ruhnama, usually displayed prominently on the desk. Whatever people might think of the book in private, public criticism of the work would be unthinkable.

"Ruhnama can be called the spiritual torch of the Turkmen people," says Hadjimurad Pirmuhamedov, vice-chairman of Turkmenistan's state-run Youth Union. "It lays down the priorities in people's lives.

"Indeed, it can be called the textbook of life since everybody should learn it, whether in schools, institutions or even in the workplace".

President Nyazov himself says Ruhnama is a sort of spiritual guidebook for the Turkmen people, but that it is not meant to be a religious book - a sensitive point in a country where Islam is the dominant religion.

Yet on state-controlled television, Ruhnama is treated with a reverence normally reserved for religious scripture.

Political purges

More sympathetic observers say Ruhnama is intended to bind together a country which - under Soviet rule - lacked any identity of its own, and which could still fall prey to dangerous rivalries between its powerful tribes.

To critics, the book is evidence of a personality cult gone out of control.

Human rights groups say alternative views of Turkmen history are now effectively banned. According to the 2001 US State Department Report on Human Rights Practices in Turkmenistan, teachers are discouraged from bringing many alternative works into the classroom.

In addition, several writers, poets and historians have been placed on a blacklist, because their views of Turkmen history differ from the government line.

Some analysts say the veneer of total authority surrounding President Nyazov is not as solid as it appears. Purges of the security forces and military - carried out personally by the president - have become almost routine.

Frustration with the president's high-handed ways has driven a number of prominent former officials, including the ex-foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov, into exile abroad.

Some local people say support for the dissidents' views would be more extensive had they shown the courage of their convictions while in office.

See also:

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