Ashghabat, Turkmenistan

His father was killed by the Germans in World War II, his mother and sisters died in the devastating Asghabat earthquake of 1948. So Saparmurat Niyazov had a difficult childhood growing up in an orphanage, an experience which seems to have turned him into the world’s leading megalomaniac. Every step through Turkmenistan, you are reminded by pictures and slogans that the government of Turkmenistan, even Turkmen culture itself, IS Saparmurat Niyazov.

During the last years of the Soviet Union, Niyazov was the head of the Republic of Turkmenistan’s Communist Party, ardently pro-Moscow and collectivist. But despite the Turkmen people’s 70% vote in favor of remaining Soviet, Turkmenistan had its sovereignty effectively forced upon it. Independence forced Niyazov into a total change of color and attitude. The Communist Party was renamed the Democratic Party, and Niyazov turned into an ultra-nationalist patriarch. He quickly ordered millions of dollars of government funds to be funnelled into Turkmen cultural programs, all of which was completely suppressed during the Soviet era. Plans for elaborate construction in Ashghabat celebrating Turkmen heritage were drawn up. Through all of this, Niyazov put himself at center stage to an absurd degree, renaming himself Turkmenbashi, the head of all Turkmen everywhere.

Asghabat is now a magnificent and immaculate city. Funded by oil and gas revenues of state owned corporations, the city is graced with some of the most impressive modern buildings in all of Central Asia, often a rather strange mixture of western, eastern, and soviet styles. Ashghabat is also a controlled city — not just anyone can live there. In order to cultivate a cosmopolitan atmosphere fitting of such a world capital, residents are screened for suitable backgrounds and educations before they are allowed to move in. At the center of the city is a 75 meter high tower, on top of which, of course, is a golden statue of Turkmenbashi. The statue revolves during the day, so Turkmenbashi beckons the sun to rise in the morning, and ushers it away in the evening. From the viewing station near the top of Turkmenbashi’s tower, I could see modern Ashghabat in its full grandeur. More than 50 government buildings line the streets, most impressive of which, of course, is Turkmenbashi’s palace. Each of these buildings flies the Turkmen flag, and more importantly, enormous portraits of Turkmenbashi in various poses — from standing in the wheat field examining the harvest, to sitting at his desk pondering policy. I counted 25 such portraits in the center square alone. The capital renovations have so far cost $6 billion, enough for the average Turkmen to support themselves for years, though much of the country languishes in poverty.

Turkmenbashi’s visibility is not limited to the buildings of the capital city. Turkmenistan’s Caspian seaport has been renamed Turkmenbashi. Each city’s major thoroughfare has been renamed Turkmenbashi avenue. The front page of each day’s newspaper is devoted solely to Turkmenbashi. The primary history textbook for the country’s schools is called the Ruhnama, naturally, penned by Turkmenbashi himself (allegedly). It’s a long treatise on the history of the Turkmen people which contains such topics as Turkmen culture in 5000BC, apparently one of the 5 cradles of civilization.

Following an astounding 99.8% victory margin in the most recent election (outside election monitors boycotted the event), Turkmenbashi has been declared leader of Turkmenistan for life. Tuning in to evening television, I saw an example of his style of rule, which is broadcast every evening. At cabinet meetings, no one questions anything or even speaks but Turkmenbashi, which perhaps accounts for some rather eccentric government policies. For example, prior to a national holiday or an important visit by a foreign dignitary, jet airplanes are scrambled over the skies of Ashghabat, releasing gigantic explosions which are believed to scatter the clouds. When Turkmenbashi quit smoking 2 years ago for health reasons, naturally the entire country had to follow — smoking is now banned in public places though this has become a good revenue source for policemen’s pockets. There is free gas, free water, and free electricity. Naturally, everyone exploits this, leaving the gas jets and water on 24 hours a day, resulting in major shortages.

Turkmenbashi has remarkably managed to shield his country from the attention of Western media. One straightforward way of achieving this has been extensive background checks on every foreigner visiting the country (visa applications take 2 weeks to process). No journalists are allowed in. As a result of this, however, Turkmenistan receives little international attention and many people have no idea it exists. But Turkmenbashi has a solution for this as well. He has commissioned a Western style english language soap opera in which a Western woman moves to Turkmenistan and falls in love with it there. Unsurprisingly, it’s called Turkmenbashi, My Leader. You can watch it on Turkmenbashi television.