Rough draft: Turkmenistan, “The Length of a Man’s Shadow”

What follows is the rough draft for the Turkmenistan-focused chapter.  Perhaps not-so-ironically, it focuses upon the legacy of Saparmurat “Turkmenbashi” Niyazov.   Keep in mind that this is still very much a work in progress.  For example, I’m considering a revamp of the introduction, as well as including some more coverage about youth and internet use while reducing the amount of overly political content.  Please feel free to leave comments or e-mail your thoughts. – Beginning of rough draft – Thomas Carlyle famously wrote, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Of course, Carlyle was…

What follows is the rough draft for the Turkmenistan-focused chapter.  Perhaps not-so-ironically, it focuses upon the legacy of Saparmurat “Turkmenbashi” Niyazov.   Keep in mind that this is still very much a work in progress.  For example, I’m considering a revamp of the introduction, as well as including some more coverage about youth and internet use while reducing the amount of overly political content.  Please feel free to leave comments or e-mail your thoughts.

– Beginning of rough draft –

Thomas Carlyle famously wrote, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Of course, Carlyle was wrong. Personalities certainly play an important role, yet they are only one actor in an immense cast of contingencies. But try telling that to the government of Turkmenistan.

By your command – “Today marks 20 years since the great son of the Turkmen people came to power, and his name has been linked to the country’s difficult, but amazing history. The great Saparmurat Turkmenbashi!”

[…] Although the president objects to being lavished with rewards, he was decorated with almost all the possible state awards. He was given the title of a six-time hero of Turkmenistan.  As Niyazov says, he “cannot withstand the people’s will.”

Another sign of general acclaim are Niyazov’s portraits hanging on the walls in every administrative building.

“I was destined to lead the people of Turkmenistan at the junction of two centuries. I took on the responsibility to lead my people away from the failures and hardships of the gloomy period in its modern history to the pinnacles of the third millennium,” Niyazov wrote in his book.

—from RIA Novosti, quoted by Nathan,

The all-seeing eye – It’s a St. Charles Lwanga Day miracle!  Emerging from his eye check-up, Niyazov promised that nothing would escape his sight.  Meanwhile, his doctor assured the Turkmen media everyone that Turkmenbashi’s ability to see into the souls of all is restored.

No word on whether or not the occasion will be marked with animal sacrifice, feasting, and prayer.


For a generation Turkmenistan has hung on the words of its first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, better known as “Turkmenbashi” (“Father of the Turkmen”).  Of the Soviet Union’s Central Asian progeny, sand-swept Turkmenistan has refined totalitarianism and personality cultism to a fine art. Calligraphy would be more precise, considering the country’s nomadic and Islamic heritage.

However, heritage is not the same as history, and while Turkmenistan has much of the former, it has barely any of the latter.  Can a nation without a past ever experience true sovereignty?

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 of 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 its actions – and its actions are always 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, neweurasia

Niyazov’s omnipresence will probably seem surreal to an outsider, all the more so since by the time of Nara’s post he had been dead for almost a year.

Note that Nara chooses to describe Turkmenistani independence as something “gained” rather than “achieved.”  It’s a telling choice of words, reflecting the impromptu way in which the country was broken off from Russia during the fall of the Soviet Union.

A major consequence of independence was that Turkmen identity had to be engineered—and engineer it Niyazov did.  In such a situation, a politician is limited pretty much only by the extent of his ambition.  By the standards of most politicians, however, Niyazov was unusually ambitious.  Here are some highlights from his regime:

  • closing the country to outsiders and declaring absolute neutrality;
  • changing the calendar to assert the country’s independence;
  • banning ballet, opera, and circuses as “alien” and “un-Turkmen”;
  • altering the country’s climate by planting cedar forests in the desert; and,
  • replacing the Koran with his own revelation, the Ruhnama.

Niyazov was a busy man, and with good reason: he was striving to alter the mental geography of the country he ruled.  Did he succeed?

The length to which the lives and identities of everyday Turkmenistani citizens remain under the shadow of Niyazov and the totalitarian legacy he wrought is a troubling question with an even more troubling answer:

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 Crimea, and served in the army in Poland or East German.  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 only 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” people.  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, neweurasia

For this nation of former nomads, the natural anarchism of the desert has been irrigated with the spiritual corrosive of conformism.

On December 21st, 2006, Niyazov suddenly passed away.  The abruptness of his death was a testament to the daunting level of secrecy within the regime: Niyazov had undergone several surgeries and medical check-ups, but each time the public was told that his health was in sterling, almost godlike, condition.

Niyazov was succeeded by Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow, a controversial member of the dictator’s inner circle whose ascension to power superseded the constitutionally-defined order of succession.  This sparked a small crisis in political legitimacy and an opportunity for change.  Although the opportunity was a small and unlikely one, the post that follows describes how the exiled opposition figures sunk, rather than rose, to the challenge.

Turkmenistan is but a stage… Frankly, it’s a profound irony that Turkmenistan should nominally hold its founding charter with such reverence as to have a national holiday in its honor (notably, more readily celebrated by the population as a day dedicated to their national poet, Magtymguly) and yet the very first action done on the occasion of the single most important event in Turkmenistan’s post-independence history is to flout it in the most flagrant manner by ignoring its provisions for succession.

But leaving aside the vanities of all the various jostling figures, there are certain issues that have inevitably served to hamstring any galvanized opposition.

The first and greatest stumbling block for the opposition is that many of them are invariably tainted by their erstwhile association with Niyazov’s regime.  The second stumbling block is that they are obviously limited by the absolute embargo that has been placed on their activities in-country.  Their ability to appeal to the population directly is thus very constrained.

Meanwhile, not only does the wider population not have any concrete understanding of who the alternatives to the Niyazov nomenklatura might be, but, perhaps more worryingly, they have also lost any real fundamental grasp of the key issue.

It’s a plight of powerlessness increased by the existence of parallel parliaments and shadow governments.  Therein the finer points of a national constitution that has never meant very much to anybody are debated to no end.

The point being that a self-appointed body based in Europe, existing pretty much solely to discuss a largely meaningless document, seems like a strange way to organise an alternative to arbitrary despotism.

However, there exist some who have displayed startling bravery by staying in-country and resisting in their own small way.  They have paid a tragic price, but if true change is to come to Turkmenistan, it is upon these courageous souls that the international community, rather than rallying around toothless exiles, should really focus.

—Peter, neweurasia

Unsurprisingly, the problem of censorship and oppression of dissent is a widespread one in Turkmenistan.  Imprisonment and torture of dissenters were common features of life under Niyazov and they have continued unabated in the new regime.

Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi! Exactly one year ago the world learnt of the death of Saparmurat Niyazov. Long forgotten by the international media and isolated on the international stage, Turkmenistan suddenly became the centre of attention.

Commentators and analysts were wondering about the country’s future. Some predicted internal d
estabilization 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 Berdymukhammedov playing the role of Nikita Kruschev by breaking with the totalitarian past, condemning Niyazov’s “mistakes,” and partially liberalizing the sytsem.

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.

Adjar Kurtov, one of Russia’s best specialists on Central Asia, points out that Turkmenistan’s political system is very stable.  This has been confirmed by the way in which the passing of the torch occured in the country’s highest office.

There were no serious conflicts within the ranks of the present Turkmen ruling elite.  To the contrary, the conviction among them is that the system creaded by Niyazov should continue.

Thus, as far as internal policy is concerned, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov fully deserves the title of Turkmenbashi II.

—Maciula, neweurasia

In another post, Maciula pointedly asks,

Is the West really so naive as to believe that a man [Berdymukhammedov] 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, neweurasia

The answer is no. While Berdymukhammedov’s domestic policy has been the spitting image of his predecessor, his foreign policy, on the other hand, has been remarkably conciliatory toward its neighbors and the United States.  Why?

A horse is a horse, of course, of course… This past January, Admiral William Fallon, the head of the United States Central Command, visited Ashgabat with Senator Richard Lugar.  The purpose of the visit, much less the results, was kept secret.  However, the Russian daily Vremya Novostey alleges that the White House envoys made a number of interesting offers to President Berdymukhammedov concerning future profits from the construction of a Trans-Caspian gas pipeline—a project supported by Washington, DC.

The newspaper also alleges that the envoys proposed an audit of Turkmen gas deposits by American companies. (Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Berdymukhammedov recently announced plans to perform such an audit).

These allegations are difficult to verify.  But should it prove true, new light may be cast upon Kazakhstan’s recent interest in exporting gas via Turkmenistan, an endeavor for which Astana historically has shown little interest.

—Maciula, neweurasia

If the West hopes that wealth and an end to international isolation will eventually relax the stringent policies of the Turkmenistani government, the bloggers quoted above remind us that such hope is foolhardy.  You can lead a horse to the water of liberal democracy, but you can’t make it drink.

Nevertheless, some kind of domestic change, if piecemeal, is definitely afoot within Turkmenistan.  For instance, Niyazov’s name has been excised from the national anthem.  In our chapter on education we include a post concerning the educational reforms mentioned by Maciula in her post on the anniversary of Niyazov’s death.  Among these reforms has been the removal of the Ruhnama from school curricula.  This change has been welcomed by Muslims and opposition figures.  For the hopeful, reforms like these have the whiff of the kind of Kruschev-esque liberalization that Maciula and others doubt will ever happen.

However, not all observers have rejoiced at the Ruhnama’s downgrading.  We conclude with the lamentations of one lost soul in particular, an American blogger who has truly found spiritual sustenance in the words of Turkmenbashi and believes that the new regime’s education reforms mark the end of a golden age.  His words serve as a reminder that length of a dictator’s shadow can never be measured by policy alone.

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 Ruhnama, guidelines and advice for the future of Turkmenistan and her people.

In this post-Turkmenbashi era, President Berdymukhammedov is indeed moving rapidly to undo Turkmenbashy’s legacy and vision. The news reports have been appearing with increasing frequency: some statues of Turkmenbashy 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 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 worl
d 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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