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Isolated Turkmenistan fetes ‘rebirth’ after USSR fall

Isolated and sometimes bizarre Turkmenistan on Thursday celebrated 20 years of its “rebirth” since the fall of the Soviet Union with a parade involving a prize horse breed and mass dance formations.

Torrential rain in the desert nation’s capital Ashgabat did not dampen spirits on Independence Day, with the television anchor declaiming that “the heart of the motherland is beating in the capital of independent Turkmenistan.”

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov oversaw the military parade and told the nation that its “happy and comfortable life” was due to its “sacred” independence.

“This celebration will rally the Turkmen people all the more around the ideas of the Era of Rebirth and inspire new achievements in the name of the further blossoming of the beloved Fatherland,” the president said.

The Era of Rebirth is the slogan coined by the authorities to describe Berdymukhamedov’s rule after he took over from the late dictator Saparmurat Niyazov whose personality cult became notorious until his death in 2006.

Niyazov’s excesses which extended to a golden statue in the capital Ashgabat that revolved to face the sun and taking the title of “Turkmenbashi”, or leader of the Turkmen people.

The president has embarked on cautious reform but critics say the state remains deeply authoritarian and accuse Berdymukhamedov of now installing a personality cult of his own.

The culmination of the parade was a mass performance by folk dance ensembles who formed themselves into letters that spelt out “Arkadag” or “Protector”, the name by which Berdymukhamedov is informally known in Turkmenistan.

A dozen of the best horses from the president’s own personal stable — all from the elite Akhal-Teke breed — also trotted past in the parade.

And in a gesture aimed at touching the president’s greatest passion, the government presented him with a young Akhal-Teke stallion.

Notably, not a single mention was made at the parade of Niyazov, whose notorious golden statue has now been dismantled by Berdymukhamedov.

However the biggest event of the celebrations is to be the opening on Friday of the 80 metre high “Palace of Happiness” which the authorities hope will be a one-stop shop for absolutely everything connected with marriage.

The centrepiece of the monumental construction, built at a cost of over 100 million euros ($140 million) by Turkish firm Polimeks, is a gigantic sphere adorned with the map of Turkmenistan that contains seven halls for registering marriages and three for wedding banquets.

There will also be 30 shops selling wedding goods, a museum about marriage and a photo saloon.

The Palace of Happiness, visible from the entire city, is approached on a widened road that allows an astonishing seven wedding corteges to drive up simultaneously.

To enjoy their wedding night to the full, the young couples will not even have to leave the “Palace of Happiness” — there is a hotel with 22 rooms especially for newly-weds.

Berdymukhamedov said the building will allow Turkmens to get married in full accordance with the “wise traditions of our ancestors.”

But he has also ordered a new tradition for married couples to plant a tree next to the palace “so their children will be able to run under trees planted by their parents.”

Although Turkmenistan retains a reputation for being one of the world’s most secretive states besides North Korea, its immense gas reserves interest the West as a source of energy for Europe that does not involve Russia.

Buildings likes the Palace of Happiness are part of a massive construction boom that Berdymukhamedov said will see 102 new objects built in the 20th anniversary of independence year at a total cost of over $6 billion.