Editor’s note: As Central Asia waits anxiously for the results of Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary elections, neweurasia’s Annasoltan offers a reflection on the meaning of Kyrgyzstan’s journey this year for her own nation, Turkmenistan. “Idealism is not enough to solve problems, but that we shouldn’t turn to the cynicism of dictatorship,” she writes. “I believe these elections could keep Kyrgyzstan’s ‘island of democracy’ afloat, [and] the hopes of my countrymen.”
As of this writing, the region is anxiously awaiting the results of Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary elections. So, I’m taking the opportunity to share a reflection, the view from Turkmenistan, following in the footsteps of neweurasia‘s Marat’s review of the rest of the region. I’ll start with a remark made by the Hill International Crisis Group’s Central Asia director, Paul Quinn-Judge, during the height of the tragic events in southern Kyrgyzstan:
“The same unrest could theoretically happen in many of the states in the region. [...] Authoritarian regimes are very unreliable allies. They only look as if they were stable. They only look as if they can come true with their promises.”
I’ve written a lot about illusion and reality in Turkmenistan, where there’s so much more the former than the latter. I admire Kyrgyzstan because, for all its problems, it’s a very real place. And her neighbors know it — that’s why the governments and peoples of Central Asia been watching events there with great interest and concern. But there’s also a crisscross depending on who’s doing the watching: the more change occurs in Kyrgyzstan, if it goes sour, the more hopeful Ashgabat gets and the more crestfallen become the Turkmen people, but if it blossoms, then the opposite.
Initially, Turkmen were stunned by the quick overthrow of the Bakiev regime, which was widely perceived as corrupt. I blogged about how some even saw a warning in those stunning events for the Turkmen authorities, as our nation was reminded exactly of how much they had fallen behind the other post-Soviet nations. Indeed, when Kyrgyzstan was experiencing its second grassroots revolution, Turkmenistan was experiencing its second personality cult, this time under Berdimuhamedov. A Turkmen student and friend asked me,
“How long are we going to endure one-man rule in our country when the Kyrgyz have taken fate into their own hands and are moving forward on the way to democracy and freedom?”
But everyone here soon became frightened by the chaos and ethnic bloodshed that broke out in Osh. An odd contradiction appeared: on the one hand, the official media reported about the unrest, but on the hand, it did so without comment, most of all from Berdimuhammedov.
I’ve noticed some critical comments appearing on neweurasia’s Turkmenistan posts lately. Then there’s this little tidbit from RFE/RL:
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has called on the National Security Ministry to fight against those who “disseminate slanderous information about Turkmenistan’s democratic, law-based secular state” …
In an address pegged to the19th anniversary of the establishment of the ministry on September 30, Berdymukhammedov also called for the secret police to follow the example of their “heroic forebearers,” the Soviet-era KGB.
The National Security Ministry has recently moved to silence independent journalists, while state-controlled Internet providers have blocked the websites of many independent media outlets, including Azatlyk Radio, the Turkmen Service of RFE/RL.
As neweurasia’s “resident ideologue”, I feel it is my duty to wax paranoid now and ask: is a certain someone checking out neweurasia and not liking what he reads? ;-)
Can the Olympic Games be held without winning the Olympic bid for hosting the games? Well, at least the government’s official newspaper, Turkmenistan the Golden Age, seems to believe so. It claims that, with the planned construction of the new Olympic village set to begin this month in Ashgabat, that capital is going to be “the city of Olympic records”.
The Olympic Village will start operation in 2014. It will be centered around a huge stadium and ice hockey palace, expected to be the largest sports complex in all of Central Asia. According to the government’s own calculations, just this part of the village alone will cost almost $2 million $2 billion and will occupy 157 hectares. Yet, neither Ashgabat, nor any other Turkmen town, are on any of the official candidate lists for summer or winter Olympic games during the next 28 years. This is certainly a very strange twist in the Berdimuhammedov regime’s plans for modernization.
Editor’s note: At a recent gala summit, Turkey again evinced its aspiration to be the “big brother” to its post-Soviet kindred. Yet, the Turks need to be careful in Turkmenistan, argues neweurasia’s Annasoltan. “It’s like a terrible geopolitical re-enactment of Jacob and Esau,” she writes, “except Esau is making off with Jacob’s technicolor jacket.”
It was one of those moments again. The heads of the world’s Turkic-speaking states gathered in Istanbul last week, cementing their common interests and vowing to take their cooperation to new heights. “We are now one nation and six states,” opined the Turkish president, Abdullah Gül, in a mood of dreamy euphoria.
Turkey was the first state in the world to recognize the independence of these countries after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Among these rediscovered “brotherly nations,” as they are called by Turks, is Turkmenistan, one of the worst authoritarian regimes in the world. Yet, if the Turkish media were to be believed, Turkmenistan is practically a philosopher kingdom.
Will wonders never cease? Turkmenistan now boasts its own “private” newspaper, a business circular called Rysgal (Welfare). It’s a publication of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs.
But don’t get your hopes up. The new newspaper, of which only a print version exists, doesn’t look any different than the current bunch of state-owned parrots (for those new to Turkmenistan’s awful media situation, if you want to see why I call them “parrots”, check out this Joshua Kucera’s post, “All the news that’s fit to print in Ashgabat”, and see my remarks below).
If you ever have the good fortune of encountering a group of Central Asian elders sitting around drinking their chai and engaging in political debate, you’ll experience how the conversation will inevitably turn to the troubles of today and the glories of yesterday. They’ll reminisce about the great civilizations of the Arabs, the Persians, and the Turks, especially the scientific thinkers. Among these luminaries, Ibn Sina, a.k.a., Avicenna, will shine the brightest.
The elders, sitting around their slowly cooling cups, will ask that most predictable, if fundamental, question: why can’t things go back to the way they were? Where are the Avicennas of today?
My great uncle, a renowned cardiologist, had the answer. When I was a boy, he used to lecture me about the “true” origin of Avicenna and how I should be proud of my Turkmen roots. He was angry by the “Farsification” of Central Asian Turkic scholars and poets, particularly Avicenna, leading many people today to believe they were “Iranian”. If there are no Avicennas today, that’s because we’re so busy fighting over and propagandizing the Avicennas of yesterday.
As with the Tajikistan chapter, we’ve previously published an earlier phase of the Turkmenistan chapter rough draft. Again, the message hasn’t been change as much as better elaborated: Turkmenistan’s experiment with neo-Stalinism has left deep scars. Okay, so that’s not an original message at all, but our spin is to approach it from digital, philosophical, and generational angles not otherwise explored by other media agencies reporting on the country.
By the way, the image accompanying this post, by Flickr user dhammza, was published on its home site with the following poem. Although it was not written about Turkmenistan, reading it I’m struck by how it could almost have been written from Niyazov’s own viewpoint at the end of his life, a tragic man in a way, whose pathological narcissism has become a state ideology and seems to threaten the very soul of Turkmenistan.
“Look at me now, a shadow of the man I used to be…
Look through my eyes and through the years of loneliness you’ll see…
To the times in my life when I could not bear to lose
A simple game.
And the least of it all was the fortune and the fame…
But the dream seemed to end just as soon as it had begun…
Was I to know?
For the last thing of all that was on my mind
Was the close at the end of the show.
The shadow of a lonely man feels nobody else…
In the shadow of a lonely, lonely man
I can see myself…”
Wherever you might go, whether you realize it or not, you are judging people. The human brain is the most complex processing unit on the face of the earth — and it is constantly at work. Within milliseconds, our minds proportion the eyes, nose, mouth and ears to form some facial recognition. After a few more milliseconds, we’ve assessed one’s skin tone and, matching it with one another’s facial features, have concluded a crude biography of the person. Simply walking down a crowded street and catching a glimpse of another human, questions arise and are immediately answered within our subconscious. Where might this person originate from? He has a yellow skin tone. I wonder if he’s angry or happy? He’s smiling, and he looks happy. Now, I’m happy. Notice his eyes. Hrmm, and the lips. That nose. Can I trust him? I wonder where he’s from? Oh I’ve heard about his people. What was that cover story on the newspaper last night?
But what if you were among the 2.5% who were unable to recognize faces. What if you were afflicted with prosopagnosia, the inability to decipher facial features or make conclusions as to the identity of another human being (arising from damage to the fusiform gyrus of the brain). Whether your mother, your brother, your President, your teacher, people with proposagnosia are completely lost when it comes to assessing what anyone’s face looks like. Imagine suffering from this grave disorder. Imagine being in a foreign town or city where everyone suffers from this disorder towards you.
Welcome to my introductory article. This is my first attempt of a “salam!” onto my Turkmen brothers. Whether you are a local in Abadan or an expatriate in Chicago, in my mind, I identify your faces as among the many distinct features that make up the visage of our great nation. During my travels back to my motherland in Central Asia, the Middle East, to Europe, and even through my home country in the USA, I am always struck by the great diversity of ideas and the combinations of different peoples arriving at a single locale. To see a Turkmen traveling thousands of miles away from their home villages, to set up their own tribe 50 or 60 years later in a completely foreign land is a beautiful phenomenon, and then to view a Turkmen in his own home village, sitting on a crate at the corner, amongst the luxury of his own culture and countrymen, brings about an equal outburst of emotion. My work now is to develop a bridge between these two different extremes of Turkmen peoples.
News from Kazakhstan’s “currency market”:
“Snow Leopard” gold coin. Made of 24-carat gold. Mass: 31.1 grams, diameter: 32 mm. Edition size: 1500 (1000 for the domestic market).
Editor’s note: Would a Roza Otunbaeva be possible in Turkmenistan, and if so, would it really change anything? neweurasia’s Annasoltan weighs the pros and cons in the third part of her ongoing series. “I wouldn’t be surprised if dreams of an Otunbaeva were exploited by a Niyazova,” she writes. “But on days when I’m feeling more optimistic, I believe that maybe a woman could bring something different.”
In my last post, I discussed the living and professional conditions of my countrywomen, which is pretty bad but has some potential precisely because of the areas to which we’ve been relegated. Now I want to directly address the question of whether a woman could ever become president of Turkmenistan, and if she did, would it really change anything?
Frankly, there isn’t much confidence in the current political system to expect that it would ever bring truly capable and popular leaders to the surface, either male or female. But besides that, most women who are actually in politics are virtually unknown and usually end up on the political stage by indirect means. Generally speaking, few to none of my countrywomen are politically educated, anyway. Most of all, the Soviet nomenclature system is gone, so that means no one would want to see “lightweight” women coming from nowhere into the boys’ club of politics.
Remember that a woman is supposed to be the epitome of “tranquility”. So, if she is tough, men will not see her as such, but as a cruel and mean person, and women will forsake her as too competitive. And the standard set for the presidency is all the more impossible for a woman, as there is an endless list of extraordinary skills and achievements she needs to accomplish, far above that of a man, even a demi-god like Niyazov. To attain to the Turkmen presidency, a women’s going to have to be a god, as much figuratively as literally!
But the real question isn’t if but so what? Turkmenistan’s no Kyrgyzstan, which has undergone two pro-democracy revolutions and in some respects seems to get more liberal in its ideals as the years go by, at least liberal enough to entrust a woman, Roza Otunbaeva, with the country’s most important job (although leave it to men to make such a mess of their country, especially in the Osh area, and then beg a woman to clean it up for them…)