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CyberChaikhana’s Turkmenistan chapter: “The Length of a Man’s Shadow”

Written by on Thursday, 16 September 2010
CyberChaikhana, Turkmenistan
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Photograph by Flickr user dhammza (CC-usage).

Photograph by Flickr user dhammza (CC-usage).

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…”

The Length of a Man’s Shadow

Thomas Carlyle once said, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”. Turkmenistan would agree.

Happy birthday Turkmen(bashi)stan! Sixteen years ago today, Turkmenistan gained its independence from the Soviet Union. Everywhere hang celebratory banners, always with the words “independence” and “Turkmenbashi” in some combination. These are literally signs of the times.

What’s the first thing someone thinks of when they hear the name of our country? Our government. And what’s the first thing they think about our government? Our president. But this isn’t only a foreign perception.  Even though the Turkmenistani government is very separate from the people’s voices and lives, the “progress” and “prosperity” of our nation is measured entirely by governmental actions—all of which are uniformly attributed to one particular individual.

The everyday people are not really part of our nation’s independence, not only politically, but symbolically. It seems only one man is allowed to truly enjoy the privileges of sovereignty.

Nara

As Nara’s post shows, the country hung upon every word of its first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, self-proclaimed “Turkmenbashi” (“leader of the Turkmen”) and “President for Life”—until his sudden death in 2006.  Reactions from online were swift.  For example, the blogger Sheva wrote,

Niyazov has died tonight as a result of cardiac arrest; he was 67.  “A possible cause was diabetes,” the government said.  For the second time in my life I’m crying for a person who’s gone.  My feelings are torn.  I feel sorry for Niyazov but I am more sorry for the people who were choking under his power.

Sheva

Sheva was not the only one feeling ambivalent.  The following comments are from Ashgabad.ru, an online forum for mainly ethnic Russian expatriates originally from Turkmenistan.  The users here debate whether to return to Turkmenistan in the wake of Niyazov’s death:

Ed, 24.12.2006: Well, who wants to go back to feudalism? What are we going to do there? To live? With whom? For whom?  Nothing will change in this country ever and there won’t be any hint of democracy unless force is used by another civilized nation.  I lived in Ashgabad during the Soviet Union but now I have nothing to do with Turkmenistan.  It is an alien country and an alien environment to me. My motherland now is Russia.

Zandara, 04.01.2007: That’s no surprise. Most of those who left did not associate themselves with Turkmenistan anyway.  They did not speak the language of the local population, did not know the history, customs, literature, etc.  So, those who could not imagine themselves without Turkmenistan did not go.

Niyazov was replaced by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, a dentist.  The new president promised a sparkling era of openness and modernization for Turkmenistan.  But it’s proven doubtful that the plaque of a legacy like Niyazov’s be scrubbed away so easily, as neweurasia’s Maciula remarked a year into the new regime:

Turkmenbashi II? Exactly one year ago the world learned of the death of Saparmurat Niyazov. Long forgotten by the international media and isolated on the international stage, Turkmenistan suddenly became the center of attention.

Commentators and analysts were wondering about the country’s future. Some predicted internal destabilization and a bloody struggle for power between members of Turkmenbashi’s entourage.  The majority, however, believed in a peaceful transition, and that the faltering of the totalitarian regime was imminent.

Some onlookers compared the new situation to the Soviet Union immediately after Joseph Stalin’s death, with Berdimuhammedov playing the role of Nikita Khrushchev by breaking with the totalitarian past, condemning Niyazov’s “mistakes”, and partially liberalizing the system.

Nothing like that has actually happened. Despite some minor changes like education reforms, reinstatement of pensions and freedom of movement, and the opening of a few Internet cafes, the foundations of Niyazov’s regime have remained unchanged. Niyazov’s post was simply occupied by a new man, who very quickly slid into his new role.  Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov fully deserves the title of Turkmenbashi II.

Maciula

Furthermore, Maciula pointedly asks in another post:

Is the West really so naive as to believe this man, indoctrinated by the Soviet propaganda as a child and who later participated in the creation of one of the most repressive regimes in the world, will magically become a liberal democrat?

Maciula

At first glance it would indeed seem that Berdimuhammedov has avoided drilling deep into the cavities made by his predecessor, in favor of cosmetic changes:

In with the old, out with the new—Berdimuhammedov is making a trip to the United States this week which includes a speech at the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly and meetings with top US officials.  It will be difficult for him to present himself as the hoped for reformer who is willing to take Turkmenistan out of its isolation.

To be true to these hopes, Berdimuhammedov has introduced some reforms to the educational and health sectors (which were demolished under Niyazov) and he has set the stage for closer relations with the outside world, especially the West. While he was taking these steps, he even seemed to disapprove of Niyazov’s ridiculous personality cult.

But what were these good hopes based on? On an open commitment by the new Turkmen government to democracy, civic society, and human rights?  Or just on the goodwill of the hard-working average Turkmen who is never tired of hoping for better times to come?  Or pipe dreams by Western governments and energy giants who hoped that a change in leadership would promptly translate into lucrative oil and gas deals?

However, recently, without any official explanation, a group of students have been denied permission from leaving Turkmenistan to resume their studies after the summer vacation at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA).  The incident has been handled in precisely the same style of Niyazov, who had severely restricted foreign travel, visits by foreigners, and study abroad.

Meanwhile, a new school in a village was recently named after the president’s living father Myalikguly.  Again, this is precisely in line with Niyazov’s personality cult, a goal of which was to portray his deceased father as a popular hero.  Indeed, a book has been published showing Berdimuhammedov’s grandfather as a war hero.  Were that not enough, school exams based upon the Ruhnama are still continuing.

“After all, Niyazov has left the legacy of what can be called the ‘perfect dictatorship’ to be readily used by his followers. In two years, Berdimuhammedov has reached the point that took Niyazov 15 years,” said a former Turkmen school teacher who did not want to disclose his identity.

If reform ever does come, what shape will it take?  Berdimuhammedov does not hide his admiration for the model of Chinese one-party rule, which mixes pragmatic, liberal economics with authoritarian control.  This, however, is not the kind of reform that many hoped for.

Annasoltan

Ekspeditsya, 23.09.2009: The Chinese parallel seems quite correct. Many “generous” Western observers are keen to point out that Turkmenistan has reached out for assistance in reforming its legal system. In particular, the OSCE and some Western diplomats have pointed to this development as a sign of progress.

Shamefully, Western diplomats also visit the grotesquely wasteful Avaza tourist complex—built on forcibly confiscated land—and boast of Turkmenistan’s modest advances in reforming property rights. In fact, the law is a fig leaf and does not protect people’s rights.

This has become typical Berdimuhammedov modus operandi, giving Western nations enough room for useful hypocrisy.  Education is another perfect example.  Some improvements have been made in this area, including increasing the number of years of mandatory education, the resumption of funding for the country’s science academy, and recognition of foreign degrees. Yet, while the government gives with one hand, it takes with the other, as the whole AUCA troubles attest.

What’s really concerning is not whether Turkmenistan has stopped its progress, but whether it has backslid into the same kind of unaccountable autocratic politics of the Niyazov years, despite the early promise of Berdimuhammedov.  Once again, as with Niyazov, the personality of the president, and the subservience shown to him by the totality of the government service, is key to unraveling the conundrum of this country.

Despite the pessimistic diagnoses of Berdimuhammedov’s first few years in office, some modicum of positive change can in fact be seen.  Annasoltan herself has been charting some surprising, albeit possibly unintended, changes.

2009: A Turkmen Cyberspace Odyssey—“I can’t believe it, my dream has come true,” says a young Turkmen reacting to the news that Turkmenistan will soon acquire its first national space satellite.  The satellite is intended to accelerate the development of communications systems and internet connectivity in the country, according to official Turkmen news reports.  Indeed, aside from boosting national pride and invoking trust in the country’s development, it does in reality mean good news for the country’s internet and mobile phone users.

Of course, a satellite isn’t exactly what Niyazov had in mind when he vowed to put Turkmens into space during the twenty-first century.  But then, since becoming president, Berdimuhammedov has envisioned greater internet access as one way to improve Turkmenistan’s relations with the outside world.

In his famous speech at Columbia University two years ago, Berdimuhammedov remarked, “Let me tell you frankly that the atmosphere today in Turkmenistan is just incredible. Our children feel such a strong and intense yearning for knowledge that we just can’t fail and let them down.”

Since then new schools have been equipped with computers and internet services in the main cities have improved.  It’s true that internet penetration here is still the lowest among the southernmost states of the former Soviet Union.  Yet, I feel that when progress comes, it comes very slowly and needs to be appreciated.  Remember that under Niyazov only government officials, diplomatic staff, and employees of international companies were allowed to surf the internet.

A new, albeit small, online community is already emerging among Turkmens with new sites and blogs linking up.  This new “Turkmenet” is carefully experimenting with a new kind of freedom that wasn’t available a few years ago and which could prove to be only temporary, depending on the politics of the Turkmen regime.

To be true, there seems to be much chaos surrounding the official line on the Internet. For example, while some websites critical of the government are banned, pornographic sites are not censored, which raises eyebrows among conservative members of the society.

Nevertheless, the cybernetic potential in a country like this is huge. Because politics is surrounded by secrecy, the media heavily censored, and books hard to get, people increasingly seek to bypass these shortages via the internet.  Furthermore, we cannot underestimate how much, due to this free medium, young people may develop a mentality of free thinking and fast information exchange that is seen as important if the country is to continue its much proclaimed “great era of revival”.

Again, it’s also true that there are limits to this potential: many don’t know how to use the new medium, so the Turkmenet still has long while to mature.  Be that as it may, I have high hopes for my nation’s burgeoning online community.  They are embarking upon what could end up becoming an incredible cybernetic adventure into the wider world and into their very selves.

Annasoltan

OtherTube, PseudoBook—Theorists like Marshall McLuhan believe that the liberalizing impact of technology has taken on a life of its own, developing as if by its own energy, and will eventually break the many ideological chains that bind humanity.  We will become a digital species, a truly global village.

I pray this is true, not only for the sake of humanity, but also for the sake of my nation, Turkmenistan.  For my readers in Europe and North America, the symbolic importance I attach to as simple a thing as mobile phones may seem strange, but you have to remember just how harsh is the nature of Turkmenistan’s totalitarian regime.  Indeed, my nation may very well be a kind of battleground between two visions.  On the one hand is the totalitarian vision, in which we remain sheep; on the other hand is the digitalist vision, in which we become shepherds.

True, Turkmens are profoundly un-used to being their own shepherds.  They live under strict government control, under constant fear of the authorities.  They literally police their own thoughts, something they’re going to have to unlearn.  Not only this, but the entire concept of free media has been conflated with political opposition, and that’s been conflated with trying to undermine Turkmen society.

Interestingly, in my nation YouTube is not about broadcasting yourself but about broadcasting others.  The site is filled with footage of Niyazov and bad officially sanctioned Turkmen pop songs.  Indeed, pseudonymity has become the chief facet of digital existence here.  One Turkmen Facebook user remarked to me, “My name on Facebook is not my real name, the friends I have entered are not my real friends, the photo is not about me, the birth date is not mine either…”

Perhaps also his opinions are not the real thoughts circling his head?  The Turkmenet forums are loaded with nicknames and carefully constructed “conversations” that rely upon innuendo and obfuscation to communicate.  Directly and overtly discussing politics is simply not allowed.  Anyone who strays from these unwritten rules are derided as fools, suspected as outsiders, and generally ostracized—for the online community’s own protection.

In this way, the digital world is mirroring the real world: the Turkmen exists in paradoxes of splintered identity.  Friends of mind have applied for jobs under false identities.  I was once solicited to make some advertisements for a company the identity of which the individual paradoxically refused to reveal.  While on a reporting assignment, one contact would only reveal their real identity if I revealed mine first.

Most symbolically of all, the “World Wide Web” becomes localized: the forums are filled with local issues and about being Turkmen, not what it means to be part of a larger human species and global community.   Ahh, sometimes there’s a rare offer to meet another user offline.  Tellingly, these individuals are usually men (or pretend to be), and the offers are typically to wrestle somewhere—an expression for a more physical and profound connection.

This yearning is very important.  I believe that change in Turkmenistan will eventually come precisely because my people will become exhausted by the schizophrenia forced upon us by our government.  We want sanity, we want solace, and most of all, we want each other, sincerely and really.  We are tiring of the slow dial-up death of fear; we want to be jacked in, hyperlinked, downloaded, and shared!

So yes, it’s true that the practical realities are that “digitalism” has made only small gains in Turkmenistan, but it’s our choice whether to view these optimistically or pessimistically.  It’s also a question of imagination: totalitarianism has its nightmares, digitalism its dreams.  And the simple truth is that the two visions are incompatible.  Only one can win in the end—and I have faith that time is on the side of digitalism.

Imagine a Turkmenistan in which people rely more on news from alternative channels instead of the state-controlled media or the cooking pot of rumors.  Imagine a Turkmenistan in which we can really know each other as neighbors, business-partners, friends, and lovers.  Imagine a Turkmenistan that takes its rightful place in the world.  I dare to imagine it, and I dare to believe that cyberspace will be the key to making the dream real.

Annasoltan

Annasoltan’s words are deeply inspiring, and one can only hope that the long dark shadow of Niyazov will ultimately be dispelled by the illuminating signals of man-made stars.  But even if it does, change will nevertheless take time.  The darkness of the old regime runs deep in the Turkmen psyche.

Generation Not-So-Next—One of the most striking things about Turkmenistan is the difference between the older and younger generations. Unlike the “generation gap” in Western countries, the difference is not so much in the way the young behave, dress or spend free time, but in the way they perceive the world.

While for the young people Turkmenistan is the entire world, for the older ones there is a stronger sense of being part of a larger international community.  They were born and raised in the Soviet Union; consequently, they know a bit about the Ukraine, have been to Moscow, spent a holiday in the Crimea, and served in the army in Poland or East Germany.  The young, conversely, have no idea about what the world looks like outside Turkmenistan.

The effects of Turkmenbashi’s brainwashing upon the young are immediately clear when talking with them.  Unable to think independently, they almost never criticize the government.  What’s more, they consider the late Turkmenbashi one of the greatest men in the history of Turkmenistan and believe that his policies were and can be the only just ones. Sometimes it is embarrassing to listen to all the clichés, made all the worse by their sincerity: they require no prompting and are totally convinced of what they’re parroting.  The only exceptions among them are those few who have managed to travel abroad, likely a side effect of having their horizons broadened (even if they’ve never been further than Russia).

Surprisingly, it is easier to talk with the Soviet generation.  They are capable of criticizing the government, and do so much more freely, especially when talking to a foreigner. This makes Turkmenistan the exception in the post-Soviet region, where, as a rule, it is the younger people who are more open, less suspicious, and more eager to criticize their governments and make contact with foreigners.

Maciula

Much of the condition of the youth described above is the product of the educational cult surrounding the Ruhnama, a “spiritual guidebook” written by Niyazov (who claimed divine inspiration) that dominates curriculum in the country.  If nothing else, the overriding emphasis given to the book in the classroom leads to the kind of tragic miseducation signified in this next post:

Yes, I live in outer space—Earlier this week I was outside sitting with my nineteen-year-old host sister looking up at the moon and she asked me which of the dark splotches was America.  Thinking I must have not understood correctly, she further explained that, until this conversation, she had assumed that each country was its own individual spinning globe in the universe, which was why I needed an airplane to reach Turkmenistan and why the flight had taken so long. She thought I came from outer space.  Sometimes it feels like it.

Annie Peirce

Perplexingly, Niyazov’s shadow sometimes has a reach that is as unexpected as it is disturbing.  To conclude, and to give you a sense of just how deep the darkness of totalitarianism can go, consider this post from an American blogger who, although two continents away from Turkmenistan, has been profoundly touched by the Ruhnama:

The true believer—I started this blog six months after Saparmurat Turkmenbashi’s death, because I felt a need to preserve his memory, his teachings, and his vision for the Golden Age, should Turkmenistan’s new president move in the direction he is moving now—away from the guidelines set forth in the Ruhnama, guidelines and advice for the future of Turkmenistan and her people.

In this post-Turkmenbashi era, Berdimuhammedov is indeed moving rapidly to undo Turkmenbashi’s legacy and vision. The news reports have been appearing with increasing frequency: some statues of Turkmenbashi have been removed, his portraits taken down and replaced with portraits of the new president, etc.

Turkmenbashi foresaw this day when he wrote: “I have repeated many times in my speeches that the Turkmens in history were not defeated by external forces but were defeated by internal forces. My aim was to draw your attention to the reality that as a nation we should learn a lesson from history and we should re-organize our life according to this.” (Ruhnama Book I, p. 262.)

Is the Golden Age of Turkmenistan coming to an end?  As with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic who continues to be honored in that country for his vision of the future, so should Turkmenbashi continue to guide Turkmenistan into the Golden Age by means of the Ruhnama. The blueprint for the future is there.

Turkmenbashi intended for the spiritual light emanating from Turkmenistan, as seen in its peaceful existence, modernization, and the moral advancement of its people, to be an example for all the world to see what mankind could accomplish collectively.

Turkmenbashi has given the world the Ruhnama. He deserves to be respected and remembered as a head of state who wrote on philosophical and spiritual matters.  We can continue to learn from his words.

Steve in Wisconsin

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