The demise of Turkmenistan’s nutty leader Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006 brought relief to those forced to endure nearly two decades of his idiosyncratic despotism and brutality. Niyazov's golden swivelling statues and ‘ice palace’ in the desert remain as reminders of a grim (and rather kitsch) past. But the year since Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov was dubiously elected President has seen some of Niyazov’s decrees repealed and modest reforms – all of which gave some observers cause for optimism.
Until, that is, the main state TV channel recently had the temerity to broadcast an evening news programme in which a hapless cockroach could be seen skittering across the news desk. So incensed by this blunder was Berdimuhammedov that he purged some 30 members of the station. Apparently the ministerial supervisory committee that was responsible for overseeing the station's work wasn’t able to intervene owing to their strict 9-6 work regimen.
The firing of the staff has conjured up echoes of Niyazov, who once fired station workers for not broadcasting the former Prez’s New Year message-to-the-people on time. The workers were apparently drunk out of their minds and only managed to broadcast the intended midnight message at 3.00am.
Democracy activists have also been worried by Berdimuhammedov’s volte face on his previous promise not to pursue the cult of personality strategies of his predecessor. Just six months into his reign, Berdimuhammedov presented himself with the ‘Order of the Motherland’ medal, which is said to weigh in at a blingworthy kilo of solid gold and is encrusted with diamonds. A $20,000 cash award and a 30-per-cent increase in salary and benefits are also apparently part of the package.
It is not yet clear whether the cockroach in question met a similar fate to the workers or if indeed the rumours are true that it has been appointed main evening news broadcaster and is itself slated for an Order of the Motherland. Our attempts to investigate the matter were unsuccessful as the Seriously offices in Ashgabat seem only to be open from 9 to 6...