Let’s start by reminding ourselves what and where Turkmenistan is. It is a country in Central Asia, surrounded by such neighbours as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran. It has an access to the Caspian Sea and has a population of 5.6 million. Its capital city is Ashgabat and until 2006 it had the best president in the world, the one, the only — Saparmurat Niyazov.
Niyazov had a sad and unfortunate childhood. He was born on February 19th, 1940, in Kipchak to a rather poor family. His father died during World War 2, whether fighting Nazis or hiding from the military draft, we will never truly know. The rest of the family were killed during the devastating Ashgabat earthquake, and he spent the rest of his childhood in an orphanage. After finishing school, he studied in Leningrad Polytechnic Institute and in 1967 received a diploma in electrical engineering.
But that is irrelevant to his story as his weird political career is what interests us. Niyazov started quite early and joined the Communist Party in 1962. And by 1985 he was already First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Turkmen SSR. Then in only five years he became Soviet General Secretary and on January 13th, 1990, he officially took the position of Chairmen of the Supreme Soviet of the Turkmen SSR. It seems like those Commies really liked their titles.
At the beginning Niyazov was fiercely loyal to the USSR, but as soon as the Soviet Union started to fall apart, he quickly separated Turkmenistan from their overlord and declared himself the country’s first president. That, of course, was done without asking anyone’s permission or opinion, but in a year he did hold a proper presidential election and won. He was the only candidate. To celebrate such a great occasion he declared himself Turkmenbashi, which means “Leader of all Turkmen”. But that was not enough and in 1992 he extended his rule to 10 years, and in 1999 simply declared himself “President for Life”. Sounds like somebody else we know, right? Right?
These were the least odd events in his presidency. But do not get me wrong, he did do some normal president stuff. For example he invested in oil refineries, factories and production, started textile industry, kind of abolished the death penalty (at least officially), granted everyone human rights (at least officially), kept Turkmenistan out of any wars, and made water, gas, electricity and refined salt, I guess natural salt was too much, free for everyone. He even chucked in a free public holiday on the 2nd Sunday of every August, he called it “Melon Day”. Obviously Niyazov loved big, juicy melons. Although who cares about a public holiday that always falls on a weekend? He should have chosen the 2nd Monday of each August, now that would be really impressive.
Of course all this serious presidential stuff was not cool enough and so Niyazov went on numerous projects to enrich Turkmen culture and increase his own fan club. He started with renaming towns, schools, airport and everything in between after himself. To keep the ball rolling, he renamed every month of the year and day of the week after important Turkmen figures, writers, poets, events, and, most importantly, himself and his close family members. He changed the word “bread” to his mother’s name. That was a nice touch. Then he invented a new alphabet, after all he was a great scholar, by changing it from Cyrillic to his version of Latin. He did not forget to put a portrait of himself on every street, house and public building. He made every household fly a flag of Turkmenistan. On top of it all, he changed the national anthem to mention how awesome of a president and human being he was. And made everybody listen to it repeatedly.
Once again that was not enough, how could it be? His people were misguided by the hundreds of years of Soviet oppression. So what would a truly great president do? He wrote a book, the best book! He filled it with his glamorous biography, the true, I repeat totally true, history of all Turkmen, everything there is to know about their native culture, how to be a great man like him, and everything else that a true Turkmen should know. He called his book Ruhmana, and made it part of learning curricular, put it in every library (that is before he closed every library in the country), every home, every mosque, and even made it part of the driver’s license test. Then he built a giant statue of it in the middle of the capital. That is right, a statue for his book. Take that Lord Of the Rings! Oh yea, he also gave himself the National Award for Literature.
Like every other crazy despot he also loved banning things. He banned internet cafes and pretty much the whole Internet jazz. He banned lip-syncing at public concerts. He banned dogs from the capital, because they smell. He banned smoking. He banned opera, ballet, and the circus, because Turkmen do not need those silly things. He banned long hair and beards for men. He banned makeup on television for women (and probably for men as well). He banned gold teeth, saying that if you want strong teeth just chew on some soup bones. He banned recorded music. He banned free press.
He was also good at closing and cutting stuff, like closing all hospitals outside of the capital and cutting 15,000 public health workers. He also switched the Hippocratic Oath to an oath to the President. After all, who the hell is this Hippocrates anyhow? Then he closed the National Academy of Science and every library. He cut or reduced pension, and ordered the pensions paid during the two previous years to be paid back. That all while building golden statues of himself.
Niyazov was a great despot and every great despot has enemies, or at least enemies he wants to have. On November 25th, 2002, his car was fired upon by an unknown assailant. Although dangerous, it was also a great excuse for Niyazov to arrest anybody he wanted to and so he did. A couple of thousand people ended up in prisons for all kinds of wacky reasons. He also arrested his only political rival. Then he ran against him in the next, and the only, presidential election since his inauguration. Niyazov took 99.99 percent of votes. Easy peasy.
There was another incident when some unruly hooligan posted some unfavourable posters saying that Niyazov was not as great as he claimed to be. The hooligan was never caught and so Niyazov fired his Cabinet, the Chief of Police and the Director of the Police Academy. They obviously deserved it.
Niyazov ruled for over 20 years, but every dog has its day, and so does every despot. He died in December, 2006, leaving his kingdom to a dentist. He was buried in the Kipchak Mosque that he prepared earlier himself. It is one of the biggest mosques in the world, if not one of the most expensive. He was an interesting man, a great and insane man. He lived a life worthy of fiction, and he left a lot of gold statues of himself behind. Maybe he was not the most powerful dictator, but he was definitely the most entertaining. Who is your favourite despot? And have you read Ruhmana already?!