“My people have been hypnotized”
Photoblog, Politics and Society, Turkmenistan, Videoblog5 Comments
Editor’s note: neweurasia’s Annasoltan, our chief blogger for Turkmenistan, has been interviewed by France24 for an article on Turkmenbashi’s legacy. She explores the deep-seated metaphysical effects of a regime that is nothing short of Stalinist.
It’s a bit strange to be on the receiving end of an interview since I’m usually the one asking all the questions. It’s also a bit sad that the West can’t seem to get over its fascination with Niyazov. But then, so much of my own work here on neweurasia has been in the shadow of this man, so I suppose it’s understandable.
The quote used in the article is only an excerpt of a larger e-mail that I wrote to them. If you’re interested, click the “Read More”; the questions are by Andres Lievano. To read the article, click here for English, et ici pour le français. I’ve also included some stills from the documentary, Shadow of the Holy Book, which is about the Ruhnama.
Q: Basically what I would like to ask her about is: How does she see the relocation of the monument? Does she see it as a serious attempt at dismantling the personality cult around Turkmenbashi? Several years after Turkmenbashi’s death, how do Turkmen feel about his legacy? Do they have mixed feelings? Has Berdymukhamedov been a reforming politician like many people expected/hoped?
A: The personality cult remains the same with only the person at the top exchanged. While Niyazov’s Arch of Neutrality in central Ashgabat is being destroyed, at the same time a much larger and much more expensive new Neutrality monument devoted to Berdimuhamedov himself is going to be erected in another part of the capital. Niyazov’s books have been exchanged with books about Berdimuhamedov, and in keeping with the style of Niyazov, today huge posters of the current president decorate places, streets, public buildings and schools across the country. In February, a statue of the president’s living father, Myalikguly Berdimuhamedov, was installed in front of the Military Academy building in Ashgabat.
Despite all this, somehow many in the world believe Berdimuhammedov is dismantling of Niyazov’s cult. Of course, Niyazov was a megalomania paranoid who ruled Turkmenistan like his personal fiefdom. But Berdimuhamedov’s own newly emerging own personality cult is either neglected or not properly understood. He is seen as a more careful and skilled politician than Niyazov because signals to outsiders that he wants to end the country’s isolation, while in the county itself he is trying to promote the image that everything he is doing is for the well-being his people, as though he were a liberator who will lead the country to prosperity.
Some observers are content that the worst of the worst part, that is, Niyazov’s era, is finally ending. What hasn’t changed, though, since the days of Niyazov, is that today the Turkmen people continue to live in poverty and deprivation. As before there is political repression and strict control over every inch of society. And as to Berdimuhamedov’s reforms, well, his promises concerning political life, civil society, human rights and personal freedoms, remain mostly unfulfilled. Just about the only revolutionary thing he’s done is to expand the internet throughout the country, but even that is fragile. Whatever change there is, at the moment it is not substantial and can be rolled back any time if he wishes to do so.
Q: One person I spoke to, but who didn’t want it to be printed, said that the attention given to the personality cult has served to ignore a series of more important issues like “the slow erosion of the environment thanks to inappropriate cotton cultivation, or the use of child-labor, or the lack of educational opportunities, or corruption, or the endemic fear of the population”. How do you view this?
A: I agree and I am glad that somebody else noticed this important issue. The excessive attention upon the personality cult has lead to Turkmenistan being ridiculed and simplistically sidelined as an absurd country that is not worth further attention. But beyond this comical picture lies a sad truth: the many tragedies of the Turkmen people themselves.
The personality cult has tried to distract our nation from its many crises, including drug addiction, unemployment among the youth, corruption, persecution, and lack of educational opportunities, not to mention environmental degradation. Despite all the many metaphysical issues at stake in Turkmenistan’s Stalinistic system that I tend to focus on as a blogger for neweurasia, these crises deal with the real bread-and-butter issues that matter the most to ordinary people. For them, these problems are the true dark side of the system.
But you won’t always know that — this is where the metaphysics of the system really intrude, because the people of Turkmenistan try to keep quiet. On the few occasions when they do complain, they do so privately and only to their most trusted ones. The ideology since Niyazov’s days has been training them to interpret the slogan, “Halk-Watan-Turkmenbashy” (The people-the Homeland-and the Head of the Turkmen), to mean that any criticism of the leader is treason, which is as much a serious crime with a severe punishment as a kind of madness to be avoided at any cost.
The President is portrayed as a supernatural person with special powers and a mission to protect the country and act in its best interest. That means whatever the President and his inner circle do is justified. But the personality cult is much more subtle than just this idolatry of one man, because being Turkmen itself is given a special position or pride, as though we are somehow spiritually different, even superior to, other nations. So, someone who does not conform with this viewpoint is branded “opposition” or an “enemy from within”.
Furthermore, this distorted paradigm dictates that ordinary people have nothing to do with the governance of the country. Instead, they should be happy to live in security in their country, in peace with their neighbours, and with huge deposits of gas and oil under the soil which should be more than enough to generate huge wealth. The ideology teaches that they shouldn’t envy some of the post-Soviet countries for their democratic failures, not to mention their neighbors in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, who are beset with war and conflict. Foreign countries are portrayed as jealously admiring Turkmenistan for its hydrocarbon resources and the vision and wisdom of its President. So, foreign visitors are to be treated as possible spies, and critical foreign media coverage is to be understood as poisonous slander.
What breaks my heart is that my people, hypnotized by this ideology, are increasingly detached from the realities of life. Even though the Soviet Union is long gone, the nightmare of Stalinism is continuing in my nation. I can’t even begin to imagine what generations’ worth of so much ideological poisoning is doing to Turkmenistan’s future.