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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 December 2006, 20:12 GMT
Grim legacy of grandiose leader
By Lucy Ash
BBC News

A poster of Mr Niyazov is erected as part of celebrations marking the 15th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union on 27 October, 2006
Mr Niyazov was an inescapable presence in Turkmenistan
One of the very last times Saparmurat Niyazov was seen in public, his bulky frame was seated, rather incongruously, on a brightly painted toy train.

In early December, the ailing Turkmen leader opened a children's theme park called The World of Turkmenbashi Tales.

This Central Asian Disneyland boasts more than 50 rides including a Ferris Wheel echoing designs of Turkmen jewellery and a rollercoaster swooping over a model of the Caspian Sea, the source of Turkmenistan's rich oil and gas reserves.

Like almost everything else in the country, the park was named after the president.

From billboards to TV screens to bottles of vodka, there is no escaping Mr Niyazov's pudgy features and Elvis-style backcombed hair.

The president, who ordered his citizens to call him Turkmenbashi, or father of the Turkmen, created the world's most relentless personality cult after North Korea.

He renamed the month of January after himself and April after his mother; he banned ballet, gold teeth and recorded music; he ordered the construction of a lake in the midst of the desert and a ski resort on the snowless foothills of the Iranian border.

Ogulsapar Muradova, the correspondent for Radio Free Europe Liberty was jailed for six years but a fortnight later she was dead

Turkmenbashi could afford these follies de grandeur because his country enjoys the world's fifth biggest reserves of natural gas.

Income from gas deals rarely finds its way into state coffers, most of his five million citizens live in poverty and life expectancy is on a par with some of the poorest parts of Africa.

Last summer the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said the country was on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe.

It published a report on Turkmenistan's healthcare, which it described as poor even by the "grossly inadequate" standards of post-Soviet countries.

It said the culture of secrecy under Niyazov's dictatorship extended to banning the reporting of infectious diseases such as anthrax, HIV/Aids and the bubonic plague.

This report seemed so completely at odds with the glossy image projected by the Turkmenistan government that I wanted to see for myself.

'Nobody films me'

Despite the risks involved, the BBC was convinced of the importance of bringing this story to a wider audience and commissioned me to make a documentary for both domestic Radio 4's Crossing Continents and the World Service Assignment programmes.

A Turkmen family
Income from gas has not helped improve the life of the poor

I could not apply for a visa as a journalist - colleagues who had gone on press trips complained about bugged hotel rooms and being followed everywhere by aggressive minders in dark glasses.

As a tourist it was easier escaping from our guide in the evenings, but even then it was hard to meet and speak to people because of an all-pervasive climate of fear.

We arrived in time for Independence Day and were filming the elaborate firework display, when a policeman suddenly grabbed my colleague's camera.

Inadvertently her tourist handy cam had caught him rough-handling a boy in the crowd. Having rewound the tape he insisted we filmed over the offending section.

"Nobody films me and you've got no right to film that either," he barked, pointing at the golden-domed Presidential Palace.

Interspersed with the crowd were stony-faced officials ensuring the public enjoyed the event. We heard of people being summoned to police station for not smiling broadly enough at such occasions.

Price of dissent

Informants from the MNB (the KGB's successor organisation) infiltrate all levels of society. Those who seek to dissent were punished by torture, imprisonment, house arrest, surveillance and incarceration in psychiatric facilities.

The restored mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar in Merv, Mary province
Under Niyazov, grandiose projects were built alongside dire poverty

Understandably, most Turkmens tried to keep their heads down and avoid all contact with foreigners.

There have been some brave exceptions. Annakurban Amanklychev, who worked with us, is one of them. But he paid a very heavy price.

Over the course of three days this summer, Turkmenistan's interior ministry (formerly the local KGB) arrested him along with a handful of other journalists, human rights activists and their relatives.

Initially they were accused of spying for the intelligence services of Nato countries. Later the interior ministry simply charged the defendants with illegal possession of firearms and ammunition.

According to Amanklychev's family, the security services manufactured their evidence by planting cartridges in his car.

The trial took place with no relatives in attendance. Amanklychev and a fellow human rights worker received seven-year sentences.

Ogulsapar Muradova, the correspondent for Radio Free Europe Liberty, was jailed for six years but a fortnight later she was dead.

Her children, who were only allowed to see her body after intervention from the US embassy, said she had a deep head wound and marks of strangulation. One leg was broken, and the arms and legs were punctured where injections had been administered.

American diplomats took pictures in the morgue but they have not been published.

Vulnerable nation

When the arrests took place, a delegation of European parliamentarians were in town discussing a new trade deal - that has now been put on hold but given our appetite for gas, European concerns over human rights may be short-lived.

Ogulsapar Muradova (image: Radio Liberty)
US diplomats observed injuries on Ms Muradova's body

On the day Mr Niyazov's death was announced, exiled human rights activists warned that the country was on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe.

It is not just the crisis in healthcare that is a cause of such deep concern. Mr Niyazov's assault on education has been equally pernicious.

School and university syllabuses have been drastically cut and fewer girls attend classes. The universal textbook is the Ruhnama, the president's spiritual guide for his people, a mixture of political indoctrination and Turkmen history that pupils have to learn by heart.

The result is an increasingly isolated and uneducated generation that, now he has finally left the scene, may prove vulnerable to simple solutions to their problems, including Islamic fundamentalism.

Although Gorbachev appointed Mr Niyazov as the Soviet Union crumbled, thinking him a neutral safe pair of hands, his rule deepened regional factionalism and the country now risks becoming a very dangerous failed state.

The president's attempts to create a 'personality cult'


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