Will Berdimuhammedov build his own monument to official narcissism?

Last week the official Turkmen media announced the dismantling of Ashgabat’s notorious Neutrality Arch. Intriguingly, it also announced the construction of a new one. neweurasia’s Annasoltan asks: is this symbolic of true reform or is Berdimuhammedov replacing the old personality cult of Turkmenbashi with his own?

Last week, this rather inconspicuous announcement appeared on the Turkmenistan government’s official website:

The President of Turkmenistan issued the Resolution authorizing the Ashgabat Khyakimlik to conclude the contract with Polimeks Insaat ve Taahhut San.Tij.A.S. (Turkey) for dismantling of the Arch of Neutrality in Ashgabat, design and construction of the Neutrality Monument 95 metres high in the southern part of Bitarap Turkmenistan Avenue at the foothills Kopetdag Mountains with improvement of the adjacent territories and reconstruction of the section of Bitarap Turkmenistan Avenue from A. Niyazov Avenue to Archabil Avenue to the total sum of US$ 217.873,600 (excluding VAT) on terms of starting construction works in March 2010 and putting the facility into operation in October 2011.

Usually Turkmenistan attracts a hair’s worth of attention from international news agencies, but this story exploded like a bomb. I don’t know what to think of that — does international media miss its old punching bag, Turkmenbashi? — but I can hazard a guess about what Berdimuhammedov is thinking: fantastic!

Since taking power in 2007, Berdimuhammedov vowed to end Turkmenistan’s isolation from the rest of the world.  The removal of the Neutrality Arch, whose very name is a testament to the bad old days of official narcissism that consumed the country during the ancien regime, is a very obvious symbolic act.  (By the way, no one should ever forget that “neutrality” during the Niyazov years meant isolation and repression.)

Rumors about Berdimuhammedov’s intention to dismantle the monument first surfaced in 2008.  More recently, any reference to the Neutrality Arch in the Turkmen media was banned. While it continued to be one of the main attractions of the capital for the residents and visitors alike, officially its existence became all but denied.

The view from the street

Some Turkmens are relieved.  For example, Mammet, a young entrepreneur, remarked to me :

It was the right decision by our president. The monument had become obsolete. It cannot be used for anything meaningful.

But I’m far from relieved.  Think about it: why would a president want to demolish a monument only to erect another and even a taller one devoted to the very same theme — neutrality.  Consider also that Berdimuhammedov pays lip service to Niyazov’s so-called “positive and permanent neutrality” policy.  For instance, on January 15, while summarizing his achievements for 2009,  Berdimuhammedov specifically praised the wisdom of neutrality as one of the main columns of his foreign policy.

Since taking power, Berdimuhammedov has been carefully but systematically reducing Niyazov from “the great visionary and the architect of Turkmenistan’s independence” to merely “the first president of Turkmenistan”.  He’s also opened the country up to serious foreign investment and the internet.  But for the most part all this seems cosmetic when we consider concomitant moves of persistent isolation, such as denying entry visas to Peace Corpos volunteers and exit visas to AUCA students.  There have also been frequent public reprimands of public officials that have the ring of show trials.

In general, the view from the street of Berdimuhammedov is confusing.  His decisions seem erratic, even if, in reality, they may not be, so it is increasingly hard to tell which direction the country is going.  Certainly his lack of dialogue with the public and continuing silence on the key political, economic and human rights reforms he promised and about which he seems to be reluctant to pursue, deepens the puzzle.

As always, Turkmenistan is a country of questions.  So here’s mine: is Berdimuhammedov replacing Niyazov’s personality cult with his own?  Well, let’s just say that I wouldn’t be surprised if we see his golden statue on top of the new arch.

Author’s note: By the way, for those of you who don’t know, the monument is a bizarre structure standing on three legs and capped with a 12m-high gold-plated statue of the former president revolving through 360 degrees every 24 hours and saluting the sun.  Check out the video above or this one to see the Arch, as well as other, er, architectural wonders of Ashgabat.

Editor’s note: The photograph of Niyazov’s statue gracing the frontpage view of this post is by Flickr user knit 1 weave 1 (CC-usage).  See also this TOL editorial about lost opportunities by Naz Nazar.

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