Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Turkmenbashi Gives Lesson in Patriotism

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan -- This is the country that Turkmenbashi the Great built -- not yet a great country, but greatly unusual.

Here the money -- every denomination -- bears the portrait of Turkmenbashi the Great. So do local brands of vodka and tea. A gilded statue of Turkmenbashi the Great towers over downtown Ashgabat, turning with the desert sun, so it always lights his face. Every student in the country studies his book, the "Ruhnama." Every government office has a weekly study hour to discuss "Ruhnama"; the Foreign Ministry meets Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m.

"Various people say it's a personality cult," the subject of this hero worship said recently, without apology. Turkmenbashi, or father of all Turkmen, is the identity adopted by Saparmurad Niyazov, the first and so far only president of Turkmenistan.

If taken at face value, Niyazov's cause is to instill in the Turkmen ethnic group a sense of nationhood. Just in case, he also offers freebies. His government gives away water, electricity and natural gas.

Niyazov perceived a nation deprived of a history or a code of its own traditions and values, so he included both in his stream-of-consciousness guide to good thinking, the "Ruhnama," which his officials compare to the Koran. The book jumps from subject to subject, urging its readers to appreciate Turkmen traditions and be model citizens.

It would never have been easy to create a real country from the raw material Niyazov inherited in 1991. Turkmenistan had one big asset: natural gas reserves ranking among the top dozen in the world and substantial oil reserves. But Turkmenistan controls no significant outlets to the rest of the world. Turkmen gas is sold only with the agreement of Russia. But it brings substantial revenues -- not to the national treasury, but to Niyazov's "presidential fund," currently said by Western specialists to hold about $2.5 billion. Only the Great Leader can dispense these funds, which are held offshore. The critical issue for Turkmenistan, according to Wilson and many others, is whether it can use its oil and gas windfall to build a thriving state.

Niyazov speaks of the importance of education, but in his own way. "The future of the Turkmen state will depend on how the current students are educated," he said at a televised meeting of ministers and educators in April. Then, over several hours, he micromanaged the education system, naming new chancellors and vice chancellors of institutions of higher learning, listing exactly how many students each could admit next fall, sometimes altering the numbers on the fly, and emphasizing repeatedly that education must be tailored to specific jobs and functions.

This is the Niyazov method of governance. Ministers have been publicly docked a month's pay for making what Niyazov considered to be mistakes. And dozens have been fired -- so many that, according to foreigners here who deal with the government, Niyazov has run out of competent people. Officials, even ministers, are afraid to make any decision, so foreigners now assume they must get to Niyazov himself to get an issue resolved. "There's no policy at all," said Wilson; policy is what the president decides. And the president, though famous for his ability to remember names and details, "is totally limited in his own capacity" intellectually, Wilson said.

Others point to Niyazov's eccentric behavior. He drives himself everywhere in a big Mercedes, accompanied by an entourage, and lives alone. His Russian wife lives in Moscow with a daughter, and a son travels the world but is rarely seen here. Niyazov eats Italian food sent over to the gold-domed presidential palace from an Italian-run hotel.

The president's mercurial behavior with international businesses has ruined Turkmenistan's reputation as a place to invest.

A somewhat brighter side of the situation is that Niyazov does not routinely terrorize his countrymen. There are many fewer political prisoners here than in other Central Asian states -- the U.S. State Department could find only one for its annual human rights report in March.