When Human Rights Watch advertises Turkmenistan as ‘one of the world’s most repressive countries’, having the world’s lowest press freedoms after Eritrea and North Korea, one wonders if you should be going there. Indeed, the draconian restricotions that have been implemented since 1991 after the takeover by Saparmurat Niyazov, or popularly known as Turkmenbashy, and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow after his death in 2006 has made our journey across the country and our time in the capital Ashgabat one of the more culturally unique experiences of the trip.
Our entry to Turkmenistan was just before the geographically remote but significant Amu Darya River, formerly known as the Oxus. The Great Game player, William Moorcroft was one of the first Europeans to cross this allusive river on his journey through Afghanistan to Bukhara, providing him with momentary relief from the heat of the area which hits you like that from a blacksmiths furnace. From here, the dominating aspect of our cycle across the country was the personality cult of these ‘President’s for Life’.
In one of Sacha Baron Cohen’s satires - The Dictator - the dictator himself is partly inspired by Niyazov himself. In the film the immaculate white army dress, disingenuous smile and partial wave of Admiral General Aladeen are based on features of the eccentric Niyazov. Indeed, posters throughout the country bear an uncanny resemblance to those in the film.
Even in the sparsely populated countryside, it was clear we were inside an authoritarian regime. Internet censorship, police checks and a ban on photos of officials, official buildings, barracks, bridges, and railway stations followed us where ever we went. However, these aspects weren’t all that different from some of the other Central Asian countries we have visited. It was only when we arrived in Ashgabat that the level of control really manifested itself.
The uniformity of the city was as such that it could have only have been the result of an enforced, centralised policy. For kilometres out of the city centre radiated layers of white marble buildings. They became compulsory after a degree by Turkmenbashy. Most of the cars are also white but this will soon become mandatory, presumably as part of the President’s pernickety policy making in preparation for the 2017 Asian Games in Ashgabat, although this is speculation as justification or information is rarely given. It took me over two days to realise that not one bark of a dog had filled the air or had I seen any men with long hair or beards. This was the result of policies introduced because the President neither liked the odour of dogs nor ‘Unturkmen’ appearances. Most enterprise and industry is state owned and signs of private ownership are as rare as sightings of the American flag. Over three days in the city I did not see one piece of litter, not one. Legions of cleaners and gardeners keep the city immaculate in a land surrounded by desert. Will spotted one cleaning the back of already clean stop sign. In this oppressive but wealthy regime, with some of the world’s largest deposits of natural gas, this is perhaps one of the benefits.
Berdimuhamedow, the current President, if that term is appropriate, appears to be a slightly more moderate and benign policy maker than his predecessor. He has even retracted some of the more extreme policies like: the renaming of the days and months of the year after Turkmenbashy, his family, his book and Turkmen heroes; the banning of the circus, ballet and opera for being ‘not Turkmen like’ and the arbitrary withdrawing of the pensions to over 100,000 elderly people due to a sudden budget shortfall. One of the less threatening but most astonishing of Turkmenbashy’s policies was the discouragement of gold teeth by encouraging the chewing on bones to help strength them and lessen the rate they rot as he had observed dogs do when he was a child. Despite Berdimuhamedow’s retraction of such policies his personality cult is still of equivalent potency to his predecessor’s.
Both these contemporary potentates have made their images and names ubiquitous with the country. Just as a start, Turkmenbashy has two airports, a city, a theatre, a type of tea and brand of vodka named after him. Both have their egos plastered across buildings, polished into statues and etched onto magazines, books and journals. Since Berdimuhamedow taking charge some monuments to Turkmenbashy, like a golden statue of him that rotates to always face the sun, have been moved in place of his own preferences. Like an unrestrained mildly psychotic Roman Emperor, statues of Berdimuhamedow are fast appearing.
There is much that could be improved in the country but there are hints of benevolence that radiate from the weeds of unrestricted authoritarianism. The country is clean and orderly. Ahead of many western countries, smoking was banned in public places and discouraged, although it was for the wrong reasons after the President had to quit for health concerns. Whilst, going around the spectacular archaeological site of Merv we were told by our cicerone that the Ministry one works for will supplement 50% of the cost of buying your first house and all citizens’ benefit from free gas, water, electricity and table salt. It seems that as long as you do not criticise the government there is a certain level of welfare in the country, though it is one that can be ripped from under your feet at any moment. I was also impressed with the safety people feel when walking around, particularly at night. Women walk around alone and seem comfortable doing so. Of course, as a tourist and with limited time here it is difficult to truly understand how safe people feel, but the country’s low crime rate provides certain credence.
Still, I get the sense of an undercurrent of frustration and discontent at the system. Whilst chatting with a local I gently asked about the political situation. One blunt response I got was, ‘no one can be more powerful than the President’. When I have asked people if they like the President everyone says ‘Yes!’ However, more often than not their body language tells a different story. When driving to see the Darvaza Gas Crater (see previous blog), we were stopped, not for the first time, at a police checkpoint. The driver had to go in and pay a bribe to continue. This resulted in a very angry driver cursing the system.
There have been more substantial efforts than close quartered articulations at push back against the minimal individual liberties, lack of political accountability and levels of corruption. There was an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Turkmenbashy, though this was rumoured to be a political ploy to eliminate his sole political opponent. A less disputed attack on the current system was a leaflet campaign which took place during the cover of night. It called for the President’s overthrow but it failed and the result was just further restrictions to prevent this from happening. Whilst ‘peace, bread, land’ is provided, the country prospers and the people see some return from this, I doubt any significant opposition will come to surface.