What Happened When Turkmenistan's President for Life Died?


© Tim Brakemeier/dpa/Corbis

When Saparmurat Niyazov died in 2006, Turkmenistan lost its so-called “President for Life.” During his 16-year reign over this impoverished Central Asian country, Niyazov built a formidable cult of personality around himself, indulging in all manner of nutty dictatorial behavior, including renaming days of the week and months of the year after himself and his family, outlawing gold teeth, and erecting, in the center of the capital, an enormous, gold-plated statue of himself with outstretched arms that rotated in 360 degrees, so as to always be facing the sun.

Under his leadership, Niyazov’s book, the Ruhnama — which he said he wrote as a “spiritual and moral guide” for the Turkmen people, but was actually a prolix collection of proverbs and plagiarized Sufi poems — was made mandatory reading in all schools and universities across Turkmenistan. Graduations were contingent on students’ knowledge of it; government officials were required to study it one hour each week; and teaching positions were often awarded to those who could recite by heart more of its obscure, if hilarious, kernels of confused wisdom: “The mud thrown at you is also thrown at me; and my cleanliness, my brightness is also yours.”

By the end of his reign, the President for Life had elevated his “spiritual and moral guide” to a literally holy status in Turkmenistan. The phrase “The Ruhnama is a Holy Book” was engraved, along with other verses from the Ruhnama and the Koran, on a mosque outside the capital, and Niyazov declared that the Ruhnama had to be displayed beside the Koran in every mosque across the country. When Turkmenistan’s Islamic grand mufti complained that Niyazov was behaving blasphemously, the mufti was sentenced to prison for twenty-two years. Later, the President for Life, not one to be humbled by a holy man’s threats, said he’d spoken directly with God, and that God agreed that anyone who had read the Ruhnama three times would be automatically admitted to heaven. It was, he said, a done deal.

Not surprisingly, when Niyazov kicked the bucket 2006, many Turkmens breathed a collective sigh of relief and hope for the future. Perhaps this marked the end of a rather unfortunate era? Perhaps this whole “holy” Ruhnama thing would finally be put to rest? Perhaps the hundreds of millions of dollars Niyazov spent on portraits, statues and monuments celebrating himself, his mother, and the Ruhnama would be repurposed to actually benefit the Turkmen people?

Not exactly.

Five years later, it seems one Turkmen narcissist has replaced another.

Meet the New Boss

© ITAR-TASS/Reuters/Corbis

The new president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who abandoned a career as a dentist to take over the presidency in December 2006, is regarded as “not a very bright guy,” according to a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks last year. The cable goes on to describe the new leader, who prefers that his people refer to him as “Protector” or “Protective Mountain,” as “vain, fastidious, vindictive, a micro-manager” and a “practiced liar.”

In the intervening years, the Protective Mountain has done all he can to live up to that rather withering description.

After naming his reign “The Epoch of New Revival," Berdymukhamedov carefully dismantled some of the Niyazov kitsch littering the country—including that gold, rotating one in the capital—and then replaced it all with portraits and statues of—who else?—himself. He rolled back Niyazov's revisions to the names on the calendar. He also gradually reduced the presence of the Ruhnama in universities and government offices, and informed teachers that students should study it only for an hour each week. Instead, in the balance of their time, he said, they would study his books—a series of rambling treatises on subjects ranging from medicinal plants and economics to racehorses.

In his five years as president, the Protective Mountain has, however, taken a few baby steps in the general direction of real leadership. For instance, this fall, he opened a new 211-meter high broadcast tower just south of the capital, and announced that the proliferation of “advanced and innovative technologies” were a “state priority.” While that move was heralded as the “right general idea” by international media, most journalists pointed out that Berdymukhamedov actually stopped (way) short of any real change. The media in Turkmenistan is still controlled entirely by the government, opposition journalists are still regularly imprisoned, and the Turkmen internet is still so heavily censored, it makes Chinese freedom of information laws look downright liberal.

In the last few months, under extreme pressure from the West and China to modernize the economy of Turkmenistan, which is sitting on the world’s fourth largest gas reserves—a potential bonanza—Berdymukhamedov has suggested he might, one day, pipe gas to Europe. While it was hardly an active step toward economic diversification, the international community, like an oft-spurned lover, accepted his non-committal promises, pressed them to their gas-hungry hearts, and swooned.

Last month, in commemoration of all this indefatigable service to his country, Berdymukhamedov awarded himself the “Hero of Turkmenistan” medal, the country’s highest honor. No one in Turkmenistan batted an eye. After all, the President for Life awarded the “Hero of Turkmenistan” medal to himself six times over the course of 16 years. By comparison, the Protective Mountain is practically modest.