In August 2002 August Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov (better known to his people as "Turkmenbashi" or "Father of Turkmens") renamed the days of the week and the months of the year. January became "Turkmenbashi." September became "Rukhnama" in honor of Niyazov's book, which is required reading in Turkmenistan's schools and which has been declared a "Holy Book" like the Q'uran and the Bible by Turkmenistan's highest legislative body. More than a decade after the Soviet Union collapsed, former Party Secretary Niyazov is more powerful than ever… and a country which sits atop 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and equally impressive petroleum reserves is more impoverished.
While North Korea has received more media attention, Niyazov's cult of personality would do the "Beloved Leader" proud. A giant monument in Ashgabat features a golden statute of the president which revolves throughout the day to follow the sun. His face appears everywhere from public buildings to yogurt and perfume bottles. When a large meteorite fell in the central Turkmen desert, it was promptly named "Turkmenbashi" by the state scientists. Pedestals which once held statues of Marx and Lenin now hold monuments to Niyazov. To enforce this state-sponsored adulation, Niyazov relies on the KNB, or "Committee for State Security." Modeled after the KGB, the KNB has a long and unsavory history of infiltrating "enemy" organizations and using torture and psychotropic drugs to extract confessions. They also have kept up the old Stalinist tradition of "show trials" which feature pale, badly beaten "enemies of the state" confessing to their "crimes" and begging forgiveness. These have become especially popular since November 2002, when Niyazov's motorcade was attacked by gunman in an assassination attempt which many suspect was staged as a pretext for further crackdowns.
Niyazov's government is a bizarre blend which combines the worst of Stalinist-era communism with Turkmen nationalism. The coming of the "free market" has meant an end to subsidized medicine and a corresponding decline in the health of a desperately poor population. His emphasis on "Turkmen solidarity" and a "Turkmen homeland" have led to increasing tension among Turkmenistan's minority population (mostly Russian, with a smattering of Azeris and representatives of other Central Asian countries). Like most totalitarian dictators, Niyazov has little use for diversity or plurality of opinions. There have been regular arrests of "hooligans" found guilty of belonging to dangerous organizations like the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Baha'is. Many of these "religious minorities" have been in Turkmenistan since the Soviet era: after serving out their sentences in the region's labor camps, they settled down in a place which had become home for them. Under Niyazov their situation is more dire than it was under Stalin: religious leaders are regularly arrested on trumped-up charges and sentenced to heavy fines and onerous sentences. Those who refuse to swear on the Rukhnama or to acknowledge Niyazov as a "prophet and gift from God to the Turkmen people" risk eviction from their homes, refusal of gas and electrical service, and execution as "subversives."
Niyazov's excesses are well known to human rights groups, but for the most part he has managed to stay beneath the world's radar screen. Turkmenistan is an isolated region, and Niyazov has taken pains to keep it that way. It is nearly impossible to get an exit visa to travel outside Turkmenistan, and Turkmens are strongly discouraged from offering the invitation letters which are required for a foreigner to enter the country. The license to marry a non-Turkmen costs $50,000 - a sum of money which is greater than most Turkmen will see in their lifetime. Niyazov excuses this by claiming that he wants to avoid letting "Islamic fundamentalists" into the region. After September 11, he began distancing himself from the Taliban and his official position of "neutrality" and presenting himself as a "pillar of regional stability."
There has been growing speculation about Niyazov's health; he is rumored to suffer from a heart condition. If he dies, it is unclear who will replace him. In the best megalomaniacal tradition, he has managed to stamp out anybody who could pose a threat to his rule… or who could succeed him should he die suddenly. The Niyazov government has come under growing criticism for its brutality. Still, it continues to receive support from the Russians, who seek to develop Niyazov's natural gas resources and to keep a counterbalance to growing American influence in the region. American criticism has been equally muted; while we have expressed "concerns," we have done little to force Niyazov to mend his ways. The European Union has been more critical, but has not yet sought to enforce embargos or trade sanctions against the Turkmens. This may change in the future; as in post-Soviet Russia, there are many connections between the government and drug smugglers in the area. We may not be interested in a "War on Repression" or a "War for Freedom" … but we have shown ourselves willing to overthrow governments which are too obviously enriching themselves in the drug trade.