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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,” he 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 that 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.

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.