Name: Saparmurat Atayevich Niazov
Born: Aşgabat, TSSR (USSR) February 19, 1940
Length of rule: June 21, 1991 - present (15 years)
Means of ascent to power: Elected
Style: Cult of personality
Quick: what the first thing you think of when you hear the word "Turkmenistan"? For most Americans, the answer would be "What-where-i-stan?". For people fascinated by dictators, however, the sleepy Central Asian republic is white hot, thanks to its viciously ruthless yet lovably eccentric tyrant, Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niazov. With rumors of his imminent demise coming from all angles, it behooves me to provide a quick outline of one of the strangest dictators of the past century.
After the catastrophic dissolution of the Soviet Union, the backwater chunk of Central Asia formerly known as the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic found itself, for better or worse, an indepent nation. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, but nobody really took much notice when the leader of the Turkmen Communist Party, an undistinguished hack named Saparmurat Niazov, won newly independent Turkmenistan's first, and last, presidential election in 1992.
Taking a cue from Kemal Atatürk, Niazov found the role of "president" a bit too limiting, preferring shrewdly to announce that he had become the very personification, and even the very essence of the Turkmen people themselves. Very soon, Saparmurat Niazov, the colorless Soviet apparatchik, restyled himself as the dynamic Turkmenbashi, meaning, "leader of all Turkmen".
Taking a cue from Josef Stalin, Niazov isolated his nation from the rest of the world and began building a formidable personality cult. In case anyone might think he's a one trick pony, Niazov also borrowed something from Mao Zedong (more specifically, Mao's odious Little Red Book): the Ruhnama.
Written as a national epic in a quasi-religious, quasi-nationalistic style, Niazov's Little Green Book humbly purports to be the equal of lesser known works like the Bible and the Koran. Lest anyone attempt to diminish the importance of his book, Niazov has made study of Ruhnama compulsory. If there is anyone in Turkmenistan seeking employment (in the public or private sector), anyone seeking a driver's license, anyone looking to get married, and so on, he or she had better be able to recite large portions of Ruhnama by heart.
More ominously, failing to praise the book is a crime against the state, to say nothing of the punishments awaiting anyone who might dare to actually criticize the book as the rantings of a senile dictator. Niazov is so enamored of his epic, he's erected statues - even buildings - in its likeness. When prominent Muslims in Turkmenistan complained about being compelled to put his book next to the Koran, Niazov simply had them thrown in jail and ordered their mosques bulldozed. Perhaps these old fashioned Muslims can be appeased by Niazov's entirely straightfaced declaration that anyone who reads Ruhnama three times will "automatically" be admitted to heaven. That sure beats blowing yourself up on a bus in Tel Aviv, doesn't it?
While officially downplaying the extent of his personality cult, Niazov has seen fit to allow several golden statues of his likeness to remain standing, including a marvelous statue that rotates to face the direction of the sun. It is, perhaps, his crushing ubiquity in Turkmenistan that has provided him to pass some of the world's stupidest laws without his people raising an eyebrow in surprise. These laws include, but are by no means limited to:
- Outlawing gold teeth in favor of promoting "chewing bones"
- Banning female newscasters from wearing cosmetics
- Bans on karaoke and car stereos
- Replacing the Hippocratic Oath with an oath of allegience to Niazov
Still, one has to admire Niazov's sense of style, and his eagerness to set himself apart from the other grey stuffed Soviet suits that took over other former Soviet Republics. Ever seen anything about Heider Aliev, Islam Karimov, or Nursultan Nazarbayev in the insufferable "wacky news of the day" section of your local newspaper?
Didn't think so.