When the Soviet Union broke down, Saparmurat Niyazov had been the boss (= first secretary) of the country’s Communist Party since 1985. Already used to reigning, he became newly independent Turkmenistan’s first president for the “Democratic Party” – i.e. the former Communist Party with a fresher name – in 1991. As for most states bearing the attribute “democratic”, the party’s democratic ambitions were limited. Niyazov declared himself Türkmenbaşy (Head of the Turkmen) in 1993 and was proclaimed president for life in 1999.
Since Turkmenistan owns the fourth most natural gas in the world the new dictator never lacked money for his great projects such as having himself built a golden statue that rotates with the sun so there would never be shade in his face. Besides, he remodelled the capital so that it became the city with the most white marble buildings in the world (that is 543 marble buildings covering in total 4514 million square meters). His megalomania went far enough to make his counterfeit the logo of the state television channel and to have months renamed for family members (January for himself, April for his mum).
In his defence, one shouldn’t forget that Niyazov also had himself declared a prophet and wrote something like a bible. The book is called Ruhnama (“Book of the soul”) and is not only full of moral lessons but also trustworthy claims such as that trees can talk, Turkmens invented the wheel and that they descend straight from Noah. With all the truth revealed in the Ruhnama, there was, of course, no need for libraries or bookshops. So Niyazov had them all closed and instead got a monument for the Ruhnama and a TV show that consisted of readings from the book in different languages. Learnings from the book had to comprise at least 25 per cent of school lessons and had to be memorised to pass a driving test. If you still doubt these endeavours: God himself told Niyazov that you go straight to heaven when you read it three times. However, if the book’s lessons were scrutinised by one person, the person’s family could be tortured.
When Niyazov died in 2006, his successor Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow took back a few reforms so that hospitals, universities and libraries re-opened while the months got their original names back. However, Turkmenistan continues to be an authoritarian human rights nightmare with Berdimuhamedow also taking a fancy to personality cult.
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