In Box

Ashkhabad’s Agitprop

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has it all: gas, oil, a seat in NATOs Partnership for Peace club, tenure for life in the presidential palace, the friendship of the United States, and U.S. development cash. As U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared on a trip to Turkmenistan last year, "The United States has an interest in ...

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has it all: gas, oil, a seat in NATOs Partnership for Peace club, tenure for life in the presidential palace, the friendship of the United States, and U.S. development cash. As U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared on a trip to Turkmenistan last year, "The United States has an interest in that relationship [with Turkmenistan]. I took the opportunity to thank the president and the people for their very fine cooperation…. We also thanked the president for the overflight rights… which [have] been a big help to the United States."

But such kudos are insufficient for Niyazov. He also fancies himself a poet, and the entire nation is his captive audience. Everyone seeking a government job must memorize his moral code for the Turkmen people (Rukhnama) — a subject that engages his creative energy. In an epic poem in the June 2003 edition of the women’s magazine Gurbansoltan Eje (named after the president’s late mother), Niyazov warned of the three vices endangering Turkmenistan: egoism, unruliness, and internal disputes. If allowed to go unchecked, these threats will bring down the country. Or, as Niyazov puts it, "[t]he enemy has many means, the enemy has many ways… there is danger all over the place."

The president hints at purges for disloyal regional governors and ministers, warning that "if a pig climbs up a ladder, the unity among the nation will be lost. Without you realizing, the world will turn upside down." Niyazov predicts "when bad things come, the evil will take over the world, pride and conscientiousness will come under the feet, the price of women will be only money, and unworthy people will protect neither the country nor their people." Niyazov even recited his verses at a cabinet meeting in May after dismissing one of his generals for alleged involvement in a coup attempt.

The poems reflect Niyazov’s growing insecurity about possible coups or popular uprisings, says Naz Nazar, a Turkmen journalist.

Now external pressures may prompt additional stanzas. U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, has asked the U.S. State Department to reconsider Turkmenistan’s status under U.S. human rights legislation. As Niyazov the bard has declared, "This is an unpredictable world, it’s like a wheel always rotating."

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