Cult of Turkmen 'Father' fades into history, 10 years on

Ashgabat (Turkmenistan) (AFP) –


Every time Meder Jumayev looks at his wristwatch, the pensioner is happy to see a familiar face looking back at him.

The watch face shows Saparmurat Niyazov, who as ruler of isolated Turkmenistan from before the end of the USSR to his death in 2006 created one of the world's most flamboyant personality cults.

"I wear it all the time as a reminder of those days," said Jumayev, who used to teach courses on Niyazov's spiritual advice book, the Ruhnama, at a university in the gas-rich republic's capital Ashgabat.

Such images are now rare in the Central Asian state, where everything from vodka to dairy products once bore Niyazov's face.

In fact, Niyazov merchandise has almost vanished from sale entirely as his successor Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov -- a former dentist and minister in Niyazov's rubber-stamp cabinet -- looks to fashion his own cult.

"These two presidential cults are really very similar in nature and function," said Luca Anceschi, a regional expert at the University of Glasgow.

"The difference is mostly in the extremes of the Niyazov cult," he said, citing a vast book-shaped statue that Niyazov put up to honour the Ruhnama -- which used to mechanically open each evening, accompanied by an audio recording -- as "just incredible".

Such excesses reportedly even amazed Niyazov's authoritarian counterparts in the region, Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, who died this year, and Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan.

In a recent interview with Russian current affairs site, Kyrgyzstan's ex-president Askar Akayev claimed the Uzbek and Kazakh leaders "used to joke about (Niyazov) a bit."

They nicknamed him "Super-murat", Akayev recalled.

- 'Fatherly care' -

The statue of Niyazov's book of folk wisdom still stands in Ashgabat, but Berdymukhamedov removed the text from the school curriculum in 2013.

And recently a member of the state-controlled intelligentsia urged Berdymukhamedov to publish his own wise thoughts in place of Niyazov's.

The 59-year-old will seek a fresh seven-year term in February in a vote lacking real competition.

Echoing his predecessor, Berdymukhamedov has written books on tea, horses and traditional medicine and has his own massive golden statue to rival one of Niyazov that used to rotate according to the sun's movements.

One honour that Berdymukhamedov is unlikely to claim, however, is Niyazov's title of "Turkmenbashi," or Father of all Turkmen, denoting his status as the founder of the majority-Muslim country.

"Even Russian-speakers affectionately called him 'Papa'," said 50-year-old Ashgabat resident Vera Fomina. "I miss Niyazov. An entire generation grew up under his rule."

She added: "I remember his fatherly care and his attention and kindness to people -- as well as the stable food prices and social benefits for the public."

- 'Self-made man' -

Commemorations marking the tenth anniversary of Niyazov's death on Wednesday were low-key.

He received no mention in the state newspapers, while state television aired a three-minute report showing citizens laying flowers at his grave.

Berdymukhamedov and other top officials were not shown participating in the commemorations.

Niyazov's early life was marred by tragedy.

When he was just two years old, his father was killed in World War II, according to his official biography.

Six years later his mother died in an earthquake in Ashgabat, and he spent time in a state children's home.

Niyazov renamed the month of April after his mother, but it has been changed back since his death.

The eccentricities of Niyazov's post-independence reign stood in contrast with his previous career, which followed a typical Soviet path.

As head of Turkmenistan's Communist Party from 1985, Niyazov was a hardliner and ambivalent about the reforms championed by then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Once free of Moscow, he presided over a shocking human rights record including widespread torture allegations, while the domestic media glorified him on a daily basis.

In 2003, the Economist magazine named Turkmenistan the world's worst place to live.

The country only had one presidential election under Niyazov, in 1992. He ran uncontested and won 99.5 percent of the vote.

"From a children's home to the Great Turkmenbashi: in the West you might call him a self-made man," joked a foreign diplomat based in Ashgabat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Many in Turkmenistan still admire Niyazov, but there is also a recognition that some aspects of life have improved since his death.

Berdymukhamedov lifted a ban on opera, abolished exit visas and made the internet accessible -- albeit tightly controlled -- for ordinary citizens.

"I think people respect (Turkmenbashi's) historical role," said the foreign diplomat.

"But few would choose to go back and live according to his precepts."