Daniel Kalder

The madness of Turkmenbashi

Turkmenistan is erasing the memory of its lunatic president, who died four years ago. Daniel Kalder profiles a 21st-century despot, and the country he left behind

The madness of Turkmenbashi
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Tearing down the statue of a megalomaniac dictator is usually a joy reserved for the citizens of a newly liberated country. But when, last month, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov of Turkmenistan ordered the removal of his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov’s Neutrality Arch, he was probably the only Turkman with any illusions of freedom. 

For more than ten years this extraordinary monument — a giant, futuristic tripod, topped by a gold figure of Niyazov in a superman cape, which rotates to face the sun — has hovered menacingly above the skyline of the Turkmenistan capital Ashgabat. Niyazov called himself Turkmenbashi, ‘leader of the Turkmen’. The demolition of his monument, of course, will not mean that his people are rid of their chains.

Niyazov’s rule was mind-bendingly weird. He disliked gold teeth, the circus and the opera, so he banned them. He renamed the month of January after himself, and April after his mother, Gurbansoltan eje. He forced his subjects to read The Ruhnama, a ‘holy book’ of his own composition, consisting of myth, autobiography, bad history, moral platitudes and rancid poems.

Orphaned in an earthquake in 1948 at the age of eight, raised in a Soviet children’s home, and educated in Leningrad, Niyazov was appointed First Secretary of Soviet Turkmenistan by Gorbachev in 1985. Over the next years he acquired a reputation as an efficient manager of the Central Asian republic, which had been invented in 1924 by Soviet technocrats, with some assistance from the regional elite. 

Nobody could have predicted that, when Turkmenistan achieved independence in 1991, its hitherto servile First Secretary would go berserk, forcing his people to worship him as a god, and throwing opponents into grim desert prisons. Indeed, for a brief period Niyazov seemed poised to challenge Kim Jong Il for the title of supreme loon of global politics. Then, on 21 December 2006, he died. 

Since then, Berdimuhamedov has been steadily dismantling a personality cult that exceeded Stalin’s. Soon Niyazov will be reduced to a footnote of history, a joke to all except the unfortunate five million Turkmens obliged to live under his rule.

I visited Turkmenistan just before Niyazov died. Nearly everyone I met seemed to have had some mystical encounter with the dictator. Even in a nomad’s yurt deep in the Kara Kum desert I discovered that, a few years earlier, Niyazov had rested his humongous rear on the very same rug that I was sitting upon. And I was told a similar story in a mountain hut on the border with Uzbekistan. It was as if Niyazov’s awful loneliness had compelled him to force himself physically on everyone in the country. Nobody dared to say what they really thought of their president; the silence, however, spoke volumes.

A year later, I visited Moscow to interview some of Turkmenistan’s exiles, hoping that they would speak more freely. Many of them had met the tyrannical tub of lard. Yet even though Niyazov was now dead and we were outside Turkmenistan, his ghost hovered over these encounters, so that most of my interviewees declined to divulge their surnames.

‘He was very shy,’ said Lidya, who had once been Niyazov’s neighbour in Buzmejin, the town outside the capital Ashgabat, where he had worked as an engineer after his return from Leningrad. ‘He never associated with his neighbours, and relatives never visited him. He would just get in his car and go to the office. He always came home for lunch, never eating with colleagues. 

‘His Russian wife forced him to smoke outside; that’s when I’d see him. He was also obsessively clean. After he shook your hand, he had to wash his own hands. This was strange — first because shaking hands is not a Turkmen custom, and second because, in the east, water is so scarce, it’s sacred. Normal people don’t care if they have dirty hands.’ 

Niyazov’s penchant for undercover expeditions into Ashgabat was legendary. During the Soviet era he would regularly visit bazaars in disguise, firing any shopkeepers whom he caught cheating their customers. This populist stance survived into the early years of independence: most Turkmen were grateful that Niyazov had prevented a slide into post-Soviet anarchy. He summarily executed the leading Turkmen gangsters, and displayed their corpses on TV. He also promoted inter-ethnic tolerance — initially, at least. 

One of the exiles I met, called Soley, had been a celebrated artist in Turkmenistan. To make money, he had touched up official portraits of Niyazov. He airbrushed out pockmarks, scabs and burst capillaries; changed the leader’s hair colour, and freshened up his crumpled suits. He was even instructed to remove Niyazov’s shadow from a group photograph. The Father of all Turkmen should always face the sun, but cast no shadow.

Soley appeared more psychologically liberated than the other exiles. ‘In Turkmenistan, there are junkies everywhere,’ he told me. ‘And Niyazov loved narcotics. A friend of mine worked as a presidential bodyguard at Firyuza, Niyazov’s estate. He wore a helmet and body armour, not for protection from assassins, but for protection from Niyazov: the president would get high and run around shooting pistols. He shot at my friend. But Niyazov had to quit drugs; his heart couldn’t take them.’ 

Niyazov’s drug use came up in other conversations. A former secret policeman told me of consignments of drugs seized at the Afghan border and then spirited away by the president’s office. ‘Niyazov was paranoid,’ explained Rustem Safronov, the president’s former bodyguard. ‘He feared his enemies were lurking in the darkness and so he’d shoot at them. Possibly, yes, it was drug-fuelled. There were also rumours about his relationships with very young girls. Okay, he was degenerate. But it’s what he did to Turkmenistan that counts; the personal scandals should not distract us from his political crimes.’ 

There were other dark stories. I was told that Niyazov’s father, portrayed as a war hero, had actually been a deserter; and I heard chilling accounts of his burning hatred for the relatives who had abandoned him to a Soviet orphanage after his mother died. Such stories about Turkmenbashi are difficult to prove. Yet in the context of the fantastically sinister reality of Niyazov’s regime, it is not difficult to believe that the megalomaniac leader might also have been a lecherous, paranoiac, drug-addicted Caligula. 

Certainly Niyazov built a system which perfectly suited his pathologies. The apparatus of absolute power which he constructed has proved so enduring that his successor Berdimuhamedov is now enjoying a thriving personality cult of his own. The eccentric ‘Golden Age’ of the deranged narcissist has given way to the drab ‘Renaissance’ of a former dentist. Meanwhile the people of Turkmenistan remain downtrodden. Notwithstanding the destruction of Niyazov’s revolving gold statue, his strangest creation — the prison-world he built for his ‘children’ in the desert — seems likely to persist for some time.