(by Guy Chazan, WallStreetJournal.com) ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan — When it came to dismantling the legacy of Turkmenistan’s egomaniacal dictator, it was easy to know where to start: January.
The late President Saparmurat Niyazov — a.k.a. Turkmenbashi, or Leader of the Turkmen — had renamed the month after himself and April after his mother, Gurbansoltan. He called September “Ruhnama,” after a spiritual guide he wrote, which was required reading for residents of this resource-rich Caspian nation of 5 million.
This summer, the 51-year-old dentist who took over soon after Turkmenbashi’s death in December 2006 at age 66 restored the calendar’s old names. His subjects, who’d struggled with the new ones, breathed a sigh of relief.
Soon, Turkmenbashi’s bans on certain cultural pursuits — such as the opera and the circus — were lifted. Children were no longer forced to study the “Ruhnama” at school, nor were civil servants tested on their knowledge of it.
But some aspects of his legacy have proven harder to uproot. Take the huge golden statue of Turkmenbashi in the center of Ashgabat that rotates to track the sun. The new president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, vowed to move it to a far-off suburb. More than a year later, it hasn’t budged. Locals now expect the departed leader to spin on and on.
The Turkmen are grappling with change — as well as the lack of it — in this former Soviet republic where Mr. Niyazov, the ex-Communist, ruled with an iron fist for 21 years. Turkmenbashi kept his nation isolated from the outside world, a North Korea with camels. Since his death, some cracks have been opening in the repressive state he built but not nearly fast enough for most.
“Last year, people really believed things would change,” says Farid Tukhbatullin, an activist who was briefly imprisoned by authorities in 2002 and now lives as a refugee in Vienna. “The new president promised a lot … but didn’t follow through. Now there’s terrible disappointment.”
While he has introduced some welcome reforms in areas such as education and business, Mr. Berdymukhamedov is careful to tamp down expectations of radical moves. “Never run anywhere if you can walk there,” he said in an interview in a local magazine, published last year. One false move could lead to “chaos and instability.” Democracy, he said, had to be carefully cultivated, using the “traditions of previous generations”; it could not be spread through “ready-made imports.” Local officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Turkmenistan would remain a curio but for the world’s thirst for energy. The country sits on vast reserves of natural gas. The precise volumes were long a secret. But the new leader ordered an independent audit this year, which was subsequently published, showing that one of Turkmenistan’s gas fields is among the largest in the world. Russia, China and Europe are all clamoring for a slice of the action.
Mr. Berdymukhamedov laps up the attention. “He’s just treated like a rock star wherever he goes,” says one Western ambassador in Ashgabat, “and he seems to like it.” The new president has trotted the globe since coming to power, unlike his largely stay-at-home, security-obsessed predecessor, and has encouraged foreigners to visit. Last month, hundreds of Western oil executives converged on Ashgabat for an energy conference, sniffing a chance for some once-in-a-lifetime deals.
They were disappointed. The message from Turkmen officials: We’ll develop our gas ourselves, thanks. The majors left Ashgabat empty-handed.
“Nothing’s changed here,” said one Western oil executive bitterly. “There’s a new portrait up everywhere. But fundamentally — the way things are controlled and managed — everything’s still the same.”
Descendants of Turkic tribes who migrated from Mongolia in the 10th century, the Turkmen are a conservative people. The country may ooze hydrocarbons, but its national symbols — depicted on the Turkman coat of arms — are a desert horse and a carpet.
Turkmenistan was a sleepy backwater in the Soviet era. Even now it feels trapped in time: Women working for the state wear traditional Turkmen-style garb, colorful head scarves and purple velvet dresses with embroidered trim. Old men are often to be seen in shaggy sheepskin hats and black baggy trousers, like their nomadic ancestors.
Herds of camels still plod across the dunes of the vast Kara Kum desert, just as they did 1,000 years ago. A weekend camel market outside Ashgabat draws as big a crowd as the open-air car showroom next door.
A short walk away, in Ashgabat’s Tolkuchka bazaar, vendors sell textiles from Dubai, teddy bears from China, wooden toothbrushes from Pakistan, leather jackets from Turkey, sacks of tea and Bollywood DVDs from India. Fortunetellers ply their trade, and the place is alive with the smell of shish kebab and camel milk.
“Business is booming,” said a textile seller who gave his name as Khadyr. He says it got a lot easier after Mr. Niyazov’s death, when the new government abolished exit visas, a vestige of Soviet times, and removed the hundreds of police checkpoints on the country’s roads. Since then the shuttle trade with Dubai has exploded.
The effect is clear in Ashgabat, where the roads are packed with new Toyota SUVs and Land Rovers shipped in from the United Arab Emirates. Under Mr. Niyazov, businessmen who flaunted their wealth could expect a visit from the tax police and risk being thrown in jail. Now there’s conspicuous consumption on a scale never seen before.
Since winning elections in February last year, Mr. Berdymukhamedov has brought in other changes, too. He extended compulsory education to the 10th grade, which Mr. Niyazov had abolished in favor of a nine-grade system. (Turkmenbashi was known to tell diplomats he found it easier to govern a nation that was illiterate). Mr. Berdymukhamedov released some 20 political prisoners, including the former chief mufti of Turkmenistan. He also famously introduced Internet cafes to Turkmen cities.
Yet there are limits to the new freedoms. Visitors to Internet cafes have to hand in their passports to an official who writes down all names and ID numbers in a lined notebook. There is only one service provider — the state-run monopoly Turkmentelekom. Opposition Web sites are blocked. Groups such as Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy organization, say anyone who tries to access them can land in trouble.
“The KGB calls you in for what they call a ‘prophylactic chat,'” says Mr. Tukhbatullin, who runs one of the most popular independent Turkmen news sites, chrono-tm.org. “After that, most people never set foot in an Internet cafe again.”
In the state-run media, the new president gets just as much attention as his predecessor. The nightly television news is all Berdymukhamedov, all the time. The new paramount leader is shown waving to crowds of cheering girls, meeting international dignitaries and addressing cabinet ministers who scribble down his every word.
“The only change is that one personality cult has been replaced by another,” says Murat, a human-rights activist who declined to give his surname.
Like Turkmenistan’s state system, downtown Ashgabat has also changed little. It’s a parade of golden-domed palaces, fountains and marble monuments built by French construction company Bouygues SA and paid for from the proceeds of Turkmenistan’s natural gas exports. They’ve now been strewn with portraits of Mr. Berdymukhamedov, five stories tall, smiling benignly next to a green Turkmen flag.
In the downtown area, authorities are continuing to demolish Soviet-era blocks to make way for new monuments. Sofia Anatolievna, a pensioner, stands next to the block she has lived in since 1975. The new ministry of defense is to be built in its place. She has no idea whether she’ll get another apartment in exchange. “It’s a knife through my heart,” she says.
Write to Guy Chazan at email@example.com.
1. a) What is the capital of Turkmenistan?
b) List the countries and bodies of water that border Turkmenistan. (find the answer through one of the links in “Resources” below)
c) What is the population of Turkmenistan?
2. Name the current and former presidents of Turkmenistan.
3. What laws made by the former leader have been repealed by the current president?
4. What item, promised to be moved by Mr. Berdymukhamedov, has not yet been moved?
5. How is Mr. Berdymukhamedov different from his predecessor? (see para. 10)
6. Why are some Western executives very interested in Turkmenistan?
7. What has happened as a result of Mr. Berdymukhamedov’s business reforms?
8. What limits has President Berdymukhamedov placed on the people’s access to the internet?
9. How does the state-run media treat President Berdymukhamedov?
GOVERNMENT OF TURKMENISTAN: (from the U.S. State Department website – read more at state.gov [scroll down below the statistics])
Go to worldatlas.com for a map of Turkmenistan.
Visit an independent Turkmen news website at chrono-tm.org.