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Last Updated: Friday, 21 December 2007, 10:53 GMT
Fresh optimism in Turkmenistan
Turkmen schoolchildren
Turkmen children now spend longer at school, and are allowed to learn foreign languages

When the USSR collapsed, Turkmenistan's leader Saparmurat Niyazov simply pulled the Iron Curtain tightly around his nation, and tucked it away from the world's view.

A year after his death, the BBC's Natalia Antelava visited the country and found that the curtain is beginning to rise, revealing a nation that seems to defy all expectations.

Under the huge golden statue of their deceased ruler, two dozen people danced and sang in celebration.

The air filled with the beat of drums and excited screams. Girls laughed as young men, twisting and twirling, threw themselves on the ground.

We have peace, we have stability and we know what will happen tomorrow
Tatyana
Turkmenistan resident

It is a tradition in Turkmenistan for wedding parties to visit the monument of Niyazov, the man known as Turkmenbashi - Father of the Turkmen - who turned his energy-rich nation into one of the most isolated corners of our planet.

His eccentric decrees and bizarre laws have always made headlines - he brought fame to Turkmenistan by banning opera and ballet, outlawing beards and renaming months of the year after himself and his family members.

The flamboyant weirdness of his rule often took the global media's attention away from the real issues - political oppression and total lack of freedom.

Blinded by Niyazov's eccentricity, the world seems to have ignored the normal side of Turkmenistan. And a year on since Niyazov's death, that is the side that seems to be thriving.

Brighter place

Tatyana, an attractive, 36-year-old single woman, told me why she would never want to leave the country.

"Look at our neighbours - in Afghanistan, there is chaos and bloodshed. Iran can get bombed any minute. Uzbekistan is so poor, people are fleeing the country.

A Turkmen couple
Turkmen couples still meet beneath golden statues of Niyazov

"Here we have peace, we have stability and we know what will happen tomorrow."

And now, she added, there is more hope and optimism here than ever before.

A year since Niyazov's death, Turkmenistan is a brighter place. The change brought by the new President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has been slow but steady.

It is now easier to travel, the internet is no longer banned, schools teach foreign languages, and the government is talking about opening up the country's enormous natural gas reserves to foreign investors.

The new president has reopened rural libraries, which were banned in Niyazov's time - people in the villages, the late leader used to say, did not read books anyway.

'Revolutionary change'

Niyazov also reduced the number of years children went to school, which meant their qualifications were not enough to allow them to enter foreign universities.

But in 2007, not a single student in Turkmenistan graduated from high school - instead each was required to do an extra year which has been put back on the curriculum.

Perhaps an autocracy that works is better than democracy that doesn't
Turkmen journalist

"For Turkmenistan, these are revolutionary changes," said a senior Western diplomat in the capital Ashgabat.

But none of it means that this country is about to embrace Western-style democracy.

Mr Berdymukhamedov has promised to preserve Mr Niyazov's Soviet-style autocracy intact. And it seems that is exactly what many people want.

Brainwashing?

Political freedom may be scarce in Turkmenistan, but it costs less than $1 to fill a car tank with petrol. Electricity, gas, water and even public transport are, in effect, free.

Niyazov did not use all of his country's riches to build golden statues for himself, he also subsidised its economy. And for many, that is much more tangible than political freedom, much more real than a foreign concept of democracy.

"Perhaps an autocracy that works is better than democracy that doesn't," a Turkmen journalist said as we drove through the wide tree-lined avenues of Ashgabat.

But what about all the brainwashing? What about having to learn the Rukhnama - Niyazov's book, which became the basis of the country's education system?

I asked Irina, a young student who has lived in the United States and who, unlike most people in Turkmenistan, knows what life is like outside the country.

"So what?" Irina shrugged, "Rukhnama is just part of history."

In the Soviet days, she added, her parents had to study plenty more books by Lenin and Marx.

Irina and her friends disagree with the bad press that Turkmenistan has been getting in the West.

"It really upsets me, and I think it's unfair because people who write all these things don't live here.

"We know better what life is like, and what opportunities we have, and I don't think my country deserves the kind of criticism it gets," Irina said.





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