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When propaganda becomes a way of life

Written by on Monday, 17 September 2012
Culture and History, Photoblog, Turkmenistan
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Editor’s note: A chance discovery of a Niyazov-era piece of propaganda in a Western university library sets off NewEurasia’s Annasoltan. “Propaganda has ceased to be just something that our government produces,” she writes. “It has become a way of life.” [Photos by NewEurasia's Schwartz, CC-permission.]

The other day, Schwartz found a little piece of my country’s propagandic history in the social sciences library of his university and sent me some photographs of it. The book, published in 1999, is entitled, “Turkmenistan: Eight Years of Independent Development”. The colophon says that it was a production of the Ministry of Economy and Finance’s National Institute of Statistics and Forecast, and that 3000 copies (“examples”), probably mailed to governments and academics all over the world.

NewEurasia’s readers will know that from time to time we like to publish Turkmen propaganda (e.g., here, here, here) partially for a laugh’s sake, partially to prevent the regime’s informational excesses from being forgotten, even if they deserve to be (which is also why we also reveal what should be remembered, e.g., Turkmenistan’s brief flirtation with independent media in 1992). But the sight of ths book somehow twists my stomach more than usual.

A Turkmen-Turkish school in the bad old days.

Why are so many things superficial in my country? Form yes, but substance no — that’s the woe that has plagued us for so long, an endless decay visible in everything, from the cracks in the monuments of Ashgabat to the deterioration of our education system (most notably, the closure of the Turkmen-Turkish schools). We are losing our intellectual capacity; less and less people are able — or care — to articulate their thoughts meaningfully, or to argue logically. We are not rising to the ranks of developed nations.

A 'sports' event in 1999.

The recent London Olympics was, well, humiliating. While Kazakhstan was making an impressive mark, making world records in weightlifting and coming in 12th place overall with 13 medals, and even Tajikistan and Uzbekistan brought home some medals, Turkmenistan choked. Remember, we’re the nation that two years ago was building an Olympic Village (basically, just another construction scam). There are other huge new facilities that are being used pretty much only for special celebrations; even during football matches, the people are often nowhere in sight.

And then there’s my old bailiwick, the Turkmenet. The Internet ostensibly was freed from its cage in 2007 by Berdimuhamedov, who allowed it to be used by regular citizens, and for a while there, I was pretty convinced that the online world world liberate the offline world. I still hold out hope that the Internet will have a lasting and positive impact on my nation, but it’s a pessimistic hope — there isn’t really any other game in town at the moment.

However, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and access is blocked; laptops are brought to first grade classes but teachers don’t know how to use them; new schools are built, but the classrooms are frequently empty as the children are taken away either to join performances or fill in as a cheering audience for the president; and the press is filled with false joy and optimism for our nation’s “prosperity”. To top it all off, Berdimuhammedov declared that he has created all the conditions necessary for strong scientific research and development, even going so far to call on academics to increase the quality of their work. And the product? A book praising the president and his father.

Schwartz asked me whether, when looking at the photos of this old piece of propaganda, I somehow feel nostalgic about Niyazov. At first, I thought maybe I did. Niyazov was a mad king, sucked into his own propaganda, a victim of narcissism — but what about Berdimuhammedov? Schwartz feels that he’s probably the same. What I, myself, can say for sure is that propaganda has ceased to be just something that our government produces; it has become a way of life.

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