Unfortunately for Turkmenistan, the West sees its dictator as more funny than dangerous.
BY CLAUDIA ROSETT
Wednesday, August 28, 2002 12:01 a.m. EDT
When Vice President Dick Cheney argued strongly for toppling Saddam Hussein, it struck me that in the dismal universe of people ruled by awful dictators, the Iraqis are one lucky bunch. America is preparing its political will and military might to free them from a tyrant. After his fall, Americans will almost certainly devote hefty resources to helping Iraqis build a democratic state.
For citizens of most of the world's more hideously misruled nations, no such rescue is on the way. In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe has arranged to start starving his opposition to death. In North Korea, President Kim Jong Il has been brutalizing his countrymen for years, as well as bombarding the free world with nuclear blackmail. But--worse luck for the North Korean people--Mr. Kim hasn't yet transformed himself into a threat quite as large and immediate as Saddam. So America and its allies instead of seeking an end to Mr. Kim have been trying to keep the status quo by paying him off.
But of all the world's many people unlucky enough to be suffering despotic rule with no liberation in sight, the folks I'd like to focus on today are the 5 million citizens of the Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan. They live under a dictator whose repressive ways rival those of Stalin, or Saddam. This tyrant does not directly menace the rest of us, however. His obsessions center for now on enriching and exalting himself at home, a crusade helped by Turkmenistan's huge reserves of natural gas, and his tendency to treat the entire economy as his private piggy bank. His habits are nasty enough to keep his countrymen horribly poor, and weird enough to have earned him a role on the world stage as the king of post-Soviet kitsch. This brings the Turkmen people the additional grief that his tyranny tends to play abroad not so much as brutal, which it is, but--of all things--funny. Which it isn't.
His name is Saparmurat Niyazov, but he is best known by the label he claimed for himself in the early 1990s: Turkmenbashi, or "Father of All Turkmen." His version of paternal rule has turned Turkmenistan, populated mostly by moderate Sunni Muslims, into the worst failure among the 15 nations that emerged more than 10 years ago from the Soviet crack-up. Freedom House sums up Turkmenistan's lack of liberty with the same rock-bottom ratings given to Iraq and Syria, or to Afghanistan before the U.S. toppled the Taliban.
What makes the headlines, though, is Mr. Niyazov's boundless buffoonery. Having already named cities, streets, mosques, collective farms, celestial bodies and the main airport after himself in his vainglorious incarnation as Turkmenbashi, having littered the country with huge statues, billboards and portraits of himself, having put his face on all the money, all TV broadcasts and the sinister little lapel pins worn by top government officials, he went on earlier this month to remake the Turkmen calendar, renaming months and days after himself and his deceased mother. The stocky 62-year-old dictator also recently re-defined the ages of man, deciding that old age does not begin until 85, which conveniently means he'll have another 23 years before he has to fret about retirement. Though that shouldn't be a worry. Earlier this month he also had himself named "president-for-life." For the second time since 1999.
This summer Mr. Niyazov let it be known that under his glorious rule, Turkmenistan's industrial output for the first half of 2002 grew at a world-record rate of 21% compared to the same period last year. He also announced that his own 60-hectare farm in the mountains had produced a miraculous 252-ton wheat harvest, which he, in his generosity, had donated to the state.
Turkmenistan's sole political party, which Mr. Niyazov heads, recently proposed promoting him from the military rank of army general to the highest rank of marshal. The Turkmen parliament awarded to his late mother the nation's top medal of honor, "Hero of Turkmenistan," which Mr. Niyazov himself has already won several times over. His latest collection of poetry, published Aug. 3, has been hailed by the exclusively state-run media as a masterpiece. The country's sole Russian-language newspaper, which he founded, has been translating from Turkmen into Russian--to reach a wider audience--the national "holy book" of Rukhname, the country's new spiritual code, which he wrote, and which all Turkmen citizens are now obliged to study. His birthday already doubles as national flag day.
For foreign newspapers, this clown, with his so-called personality cult (it's a cult of one), makes for great comic copy. "Turkmen Leader, Wishing to be August, Settles for January," ran the New York Times headline when Mr. Niyazov renamed the months. "Turkmenistan--a land of melons with a real banana as its President," wrote Caitlin Moran last week in the London Times. The Washington Post's Robert Kaiser recently visited the country, reporting at length on its entertaining aspects, but shrugging off much of the repression that prevents the Turkmen people--who are not idiots--from ridding themselves of all this costly madness. "A somewhat brighter side of the situation is that Mr. Niyazov does not routinely terrorize his countrymen," wrote Mr. Kaiser.
Turkmenistan's former deputy prime minister, Boris Shikhmuradov, who defected last year, and has since been living in exile and calling for the overthrow of Mr. Niyazov, takes a grimmer view. "The comic representation of what happens there is not good," says Mr. Shikhmuradov, in a telephone interview (for security reasons he would not disclose his whereabouts). Adds Mr. Shikhmuradov, "The whole nation is being destroyed by this horrible man."
Among the Turkmen, Mr. Shikhmuradov has plenty of company, both in his views and his exile. Mr. Niyazov's misrule has produced a gush of high-ranking defectors, including his own first foreign minister, a former oil and gas minister, a former chairman of the central bank, the former ambassadors to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates and the number two man at the Turkmen embassy in Washington. Mr. Niyazov's state security service, successor to the Soviet KGB, routinely shuts down even the smallest twitch of dissent. When dissidents, in a daring move earlier this month, went to the main bazaar in Ashgabat, the capital, and began distributing leaflets denouncing Mr. Niyazov, sources inside Turkmenistan report that they were shut down almost immediately, and the bazaar was cordoned off.
When I visited Turkmenistan, back in 1995, people on the street praised Mr. Niyazov--until they had a chance to talk privately. Then, the more typical talk was that people were hungry and scared. "We are held so tightly that the person who talks is taken away," one man warned me, asking for a promise that he not be identified. Since then, little has changed beyond the making of more monuments to Mr. Niyazov. His modest concession since Sept. 11 of allowing relief shipments for Afghan refugees to cross Turkmen terrain has earned him thanks and praise as an ally of the West. That has to be cold comfort for the Turkmen people themselves. As I said, lucky Iraqis.
Ms. Rosett is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board. Her column appears Wednesdays here and in The Wall Street Journal Europe.