Meet the new god: Turk­menistan ad­justs to up­date in ‘cult of per­son­al­ity’

The Washington Times Weekly - - World - By Joshua Kucera

ASH­GA­BAT,Turk­menistan—The hottest-sell­ing items in Ash­ga­bat’s mar­kets are pho­to­graphs of the new pres­i­dent, Gur­ban­guly Berdimuhamme­dov,whoap­pears­set to carry on a per­son­al­ity cult ri­val­ing that of the Kim dy­nasty in North Korea.

Pic­tures of the new leader, who took of­fice ear­lier this year, have been spring­ing up on bill­boards, on pub­lic build­ings, next to foun­tains and in school class­rooms across the coun­try, of­ten in the mid­dle of the night.

Smaller like­nesses of Mr. Berdimuhamme­dov are be­ing snapped up for dis­play in homes and of­fices — al­though for some res­i­dents whose af­fec­tion for the late pres­i­dent, Sa­pur­mu­rat Niya­zov, re­mains strong, it is too much, too soon.

“We were all shocked by it,” said Irina, who de­clined to give her last name. “You’re used to see­ing one por­trait ev­ery­where, and now you see an­other one. Ev­ery­one is talk­ing about it.”

Un­der Mr. Niya­zov, who died in De­cem­ber, Turk­menistan was the home of the most per­va­sive cult of per­son­al­ity this side of North Korea.

Mr. Niya­zov re­named him­self Turk­men­bashi — mean­ing “Fa­ther of the Turk­men” — and then gave the same name to the first month of the year, the coun­try’s main Caspian sea­port and its tallest moun­tain. Stat­ues of him, fre­quently made of gold, were erected across the cap­i­tal, Ash­ga­bat. Pic­tures of him were posted ev­ery­where.

Whether that cult will con­tinue un­der Mr. Berdimuhamme­dov is of in­ter­est to the 5 mil­lion res­i­dents of this for­mer Soviet repub­lic, as well as to the United States, Rus­sia, Europe and China.

All are ea­ger to get a piece of Turk­menistan’s sub­stan­tial re­serves of nat­u­ral gas, es­ti­mated to be fourth­largest in the world, but largely un­tapped in part be­cause of the dif­fi­culty of do­ing busi­ness with the ec­cen­tric Mr. Niya­zov.

Mr. Berdimuhamme­dov, 50, is a for­mer den­tist and min­is­ter of health who was lit­tle known even in Turk- menistan un­til he was thrust, via Soviet-style in­ter­nal ma­neu­ver­ing, into the pres­i­dency.

If the pub­lic wasn’t familiar with him be­fore, they cer­tainly are now.

The por­traits be­gan ap­pear­ing at the end of last month, at the same time an or­der was given to schools, health clin­ics and other gov­ern­ment build­ings to re­place their Niya­zov pho­tos with­those­ofMr.Berdimuhamme­dov.

The changes are some­times im­per­cep­ti­ble be­cause Mr. Berdimuhamme­dov closely re­sem­bles Mr. Niya­zov, and even lo­cals have a hard time dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween the two.

It helps that Mr. Berdimuhamme­dov is usu­ally shown wear­ing a lapel pin bear­ing Mr. Niya­zov’s profile.

The bill­board-sized pho­tos ap­par­ently are changed in the mid­dle of the night, and res­i­dents no­tice the new por­traits only in the morn­ing.

Diplo­mats are watch­ing which min­istries are first to change their pho­tos, us­ing a sort of neo-Krem­li­nol­ogy to track the opaque in­ter­nal pol­i­tics of Turk­menistan.

“The dan­ger of a per­son­al­ity cult is here again, un­for­tu­nately,” said one West­ern diplo­mat. “He has to be care­ful not to overdo it.”

De­spite the

bur­geon­ing Berdimuhamme­dov pho­to­graphs, lo­cals and for­eign res­i­dents say, peo­ple are slowly start­ing to feel more com­fort­able talk­ing openly.

The gov­ern­ment has an­nounced that it will rec­og­nize for­eign univer­sity de­grees, has re­in­stated a year of high school that Mr. Niya­zov elim­i­nated and is bring­ing for­eign lan­guages back into the cur­ricu­lum. Travel com­pa­nies re­port that more tourist visas are be­ing granted.

In most spheres, how­ever, lit­tle has changed. Op­po­si­tion po­lit­i­cal par­ties are still banned, and there is no free press.

There is still a sig­nif­i­cant fear of speak­ing in pub­lic or to jour­nal­ists, and peo­ple rarely men­tion Mr. Niya­zov or Mr. Berdimuhamme­dov by name, pre­fer­ring the terms “the for­mer pres­i­dent” and “the new pres­i­dent.”

“It’s go­ing to take at least a cou­ple of years to see what kind of gov­ern­ment this is,” Irina said. “When Turk­men­bashi came in, it was great; there were so many changes, and he seemed like a lib­eral. And then you see what hap­pened.”

Joshua Kucera / The Wash­ing­ton Times

Pho­to­graphs of Turk­menistan’s new pres­i­dent, Gur­ban­guly Berdimuhamme­dov, are avail­able for pur­chase at a bazaar in Ash­ga­bat, the cap­i­tal of the Cen­tral Asian na­tion.

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