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In Turkmenistan, new president has not brought new life

Published on 06/01/2010

Ashgabat — The unsmiling face that graces billboards, massive television screens and even hand-woven carpets across ex-Soviet Turkmenistan may be different, but not much else has changed.

Three years after the death of eccentric dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, which raised hopes of change in one of the world’s most isolated and repressive states, a recent visit to the country showed scant evidence of reform.

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has enacted symbolic reforms and drafted a new constitution, but there is a rising personality cult, a complete lack of political freedom and corruption appears to run rampant.

"There’s no question that there’s a personality cult. It’s all about Berdy. The question will be whether or not it goes to his head and turns him into a whackjob," said one Western diplomat.

"As far as we’re concerned there’s only one person to deal with, and that’s Berdy. He makes all the decisions, he even names the streets," said the diplomat, who spoke under condition of anonymity.

Niyazov ruled Turkmenistan, an energy-rich former Soviet republic bordering Iran and Afghanistan, with an iron fist for two decades until his sudden death from heart failure in 2006.

He constructed one of the most bizarre and lavish personality cults of the 20th century, renaming months and days of the week after members of his family and immortalising himself in golden statues across the impoverished state.

When he was succeeded by Berdymukhamedov, a relatively obscure dentist and former health minister who pledged to open up Turkmenistan, many hoped the country would, at the very least, shed its more bizarre trappings.

But in Turkmenistan’s futuristic capital Ashgabat, its almost impossibly clean streets eerily devoid of pedestrians, it is clear that Berdymukhamedov is well on his way to replacing Niyazov’s personality cult with one of his own.

Massive portraits of the president in different situations hang from the white marble facades of buildings across the country.

Here the dour president is wearing a military uniform. There he is dressed as a sombre chief executive, ready for work. In one, he appears to be waving hello to a white dove, framed by a traditional Turkmen carpet.

Niyazov dubbed the era of his rule "The Golden Age"; Berdymukhamedov has settled on calling his "The Epoch of Revival." Niyazov wrote a rambling book of poetry and philosophy, while Berdymukhamedov has penned a tome on horses.

The similarities between the two leaders go on and on.

Few local residents would discuss the country openly, but those who did expressed anger at economic failings and rampant corruption, rather than the lack of freedoms.

Corruption permeates everything here, making life increasingly difficult, said one Ashgabat resident who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation.

"You must write about the political situation here, because it’s so bad. Those at the top take everything and stick it in their pockets. There’s nothing left for us simple folks," he said.

"You see those women?" he asked, pointing to a group of the ubiquitous female street cleaners who line the city’s broad thoroughfares, their faces wrapped in colourful scarves against the blazing heat and desert dust.

"Sometimes they don’t even get paid for up to two months at a time. And even then, the money they receive is terrible."

Indeed, there is strong evidence that Berdymukhamedov is continuing not only the social policies of his predecessor, but also his economic policies.

Several diplomats estimated the unemployment rate at around 60 percent, much higher than the official jobless rate announced by the government in recent years. Ashgabat has not released official unemployment figures for 2009.

Last week, the government announced it would spend 12 billion dollars (eight billion euros) on new construction projects in 2010, despite having lost much of its annual income during a gas row with Russia that saw exports grind to a halt.

Berdymukhamedov has surrounded himself with ineffective managers and is increasingly isolated in his decision-making process, said another Western diplomat who also requested anonymity.

"It’s even worse than under Niyazov. Everyone is afraid to tell him anything that might upset him," he said.

Still, not everyone is unhappy with the job Berdymukhamedov is doing or with the system he inherited.

Rakhim, an elderly taxi driver, said that although he greatly respected the foreigners who visited the country, Western-style democracy was not a good fit for Turkmenistan.

"Pluralism? You mean someone being able to get up and criticise the president even if he’s doing a good job? No, we’ve never had that and we don’t need it."