IF the former Soviet Central Asian republics suffered from inferiority complexes during the years of Russian cultural hegemony, their brash leaders have gone to the opposite extreme since independence in 1991. Chief among them is Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov, whose bizarre personality cult makes him possibly the only world leader alongside whom North Korea's President Kim Jong Il appears modest.

Niyazov was of relatively humble origins, being orphaned by a massive earthquake that struck the capital Ashkhabad in 1948. Ashkhabad was used as a military outpost by the Russian Tsars to govern the Turkmen desert tribes they conquered in the mid-19th century, and became capital of the new Turkmen republic created by the Bolshevik regime in 1924.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Niyazov, who had risen through Communist Party ranks to head the republic in 1985, transformed his new state into a pseudo-tribal polity centred on himself. He adopted the name 'Turkmenbashi', meaning 'leader of the Turkmen'. His face adorns everything from the currency to bottles of vodka; his portrait hangs in offices, schools and on street corners; Ashkhabad's central boulevard and its airport are both named after him. Uniformed guards stand beside statues of him that litter the capital, one of them a gold Turkmenbashi that rotates with the sun. He has even renamed the month of January 'Turkmenbashi' - and April is now known as Gurbansoltan, after his mother.

Yet Niyazov's iron-fisted rule is no laughing matter. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe reckons the Turkmen Government's restrictions on freedom of expression to be the worst in any of its 55 member states. There are no independent media, opposition parties nor trade unions. The import of foreign newspapers is strictly forbidden and internet access tightly controlled. Members of minority religions have been harassed, imprisoned and even deported.

Niyazov's zeal to insulate his country from the outside world has led him to ban opera and ballet and close concert halls, the circus and the Academy of Sciences. They have been replaced instead by Niyazov's notion of Turkmen culture, centring upon the Ruhnama, his book of spiritual sayings. This has all been justified in the name of 'stability' - and it is true that the country has thus far avoided the destruction that engulfed neighbouring Tajikistan.

Yet even these measures have not been enough to insulate Niyazov from all opposition. There was a major assassination attempt on him in Ashkhabad in November 2002, and street protests have been more frequent. Although small in number, these suggest that the population may be increasingly unprepared to accept their lot. The majority of the population live below the poverty line, with conditions particularly bad in rural areas. Turkmens witnessed steep declines in wages and in health, education and other public-service provision, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many feel that they are not getting a fair share of the state's wealth.

And wealth it has in plenty: Turkmenistan's deserts and Caspian seabed boast copious oil deposits and one of the world's largest reserves of natural gas. Recent increases in production, as Turkmenistan opens more export routes, have led to double-figure GDP growth over the past few years. These returns allow Niyazov to bolster his own rule and subsidize basic foodstuffs so as to cushion the effects of poverty in a way that neighbouring states cannot do.

This hydrocarbon wealth means foreign governments and oil companies are eager to curry favour with Turkmenistan. And its official neutrality did not prevent Niyazov from allowing American military planes to use Turkmen airspace in their war with the Taliban. As a reward for this support, the US State Department refused to include Turkmenistan in its 2002 list of 'Countries of Particular Concern' over the infringement of religious liberties, even though it has the worst record on religious freedom in the former Soviet Union. Inclusion would have incurred automatic sanctions. On the contrary, Donald Rumsfeld personally flew to Ashkhabad to thank Niyazov for his support.

This combination of luck, skill and hydrocarbons may ensure that Niyazov remains in power for some time yet. Perhaps there is something to the Ruhnama after all.

Nick Megoran

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