There was a time when he was almost a god, but the memory is fading fast.
On December 21, 2006, the unexpected death of Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov was announced to the world. It is said he died on that day, although some suspect he may have fallen earlier, possibly the result of a nebulous palace coup.
The date is still officially recognized as the “First President Saparmurat Niyazov Turkmenbashi the Great Memorial Day.”
On the eve of the anniversary this year, current President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov spoke highly of his predecessor’s legacy. “The service of the first president of Turkmenistan was enormous and will always remain in the people’s memory,” Berdymukhamedov told a Cabinet meeting.
“Everybody that wishes to revere the memory of this extraordinary person can visit Kipchak [Niyazov’s home village] and perform a pilgrimage to the grave of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi,” the president added.
The state news agency tried to give the impression of a rousing turnout of clergy, village elders and crowds of citizenry.
Footage shown on television news offered quite a different picture, however. Not one person was shown laying flowers at the Niyazov mausoleum. Indeed, footage of the mausoleum showed no people inside or outside at all.
That’s hardly surprising, since Niyazov’s imagery has become an ever-decreasing commodity. Photos of the first president no longer appear in newspapers, magazines and textbooks. The only visible reminders in the capital or regional centers are the many statues that were erected under his rule.
Students do still study the Rukhnama, the tomes of Niyazov’s writings described in state propaganda as “holy works,” in one weekly class.
While busily building up his own personality cult, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is also investing substantial efforts into turning his father into a figure of adulation.
State newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan reported October 22 that the country’s first monument to the still living Myalikguly Berdymukhamedov has been unveiled in his home village, Yzgant. In an effort at lending legitimacy to the exercise, the besuited bronze bust was approved by the rubber-stamp parliament.
A state television report on the unveiling showed a huge audience including ministers, village elders, local residents and students bursting into lively applause as the awning came off the statue. And as is standard, the foreign diplomatic corps were in attendance to give the event an ambassadorial stamp of approval.
The unveiling was succeeding by traditional dancing and a rendition of a song hailing the Arkadag -- the title of “Protector” now typically bestowed on the president by state media.
Neutral Turkmenistan probably described the mood best: "The unveiling of the monument in Yzgant lent the festivities a spiritual mood that mingled with the triumphant festive music festival to create a sublime symphony of patriotism."
After the ceremony, Berdymukhamedov Jr. himself arrived in a cortege. It is not known if his father attended the jamboree.
Again, Neutral Turkmenistan describes the scene in its trademark style: "Girls in national dress presented bouquets of flowers to the president of Turkmenistan. Representatives of the faith offered up prayers for the good health and longevity of the nation’s leader, and success in all his undertakings in the name of progress and prosperity of the fatherland.”
Star of stage and screen, fairy-tale hero – Kazakhstan’s Leader of the Nation is now getting his place cemented in the history books with the publication of his first official biography.
The tome offers a “historical retrospective” of the life and times of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first (and so far only) president of independent Kazakhstan, under whose astute tutelage the country’s “dramatic” march forward will be viewed.
Being billed by state media as the first attempt at “a historical biographical study of the life and activity” of Nazarbayev, the book, overseen by the president’s office, follows “his path from simple rural guy to national leader.”
If the territory sounds familiar, it is: The early stages of this rise to power and glory were charted in last year’s movie Sky of My Childhood, and Nazarbayev’s life has also featured in a hagiography written by disgraced former British MP Jonathan Aitken (after Aitken served time in a British jail for perjury).
What would it mean if Turkmenistan’s president could only garner the votes of 85 percent of his flock? That support for his gas-subsidized welfare and international neutrality was waning? Or that Middle East dissent could be spilling over to this vast desert of stability? Or that the populace doubts the greatness of his Era of Great Revival?
Or none of those things. Building a truly unassailable cult of personality requires an ever-ascending process of glorification and affirmation. For two decades of independence, this has been the only politics Turkmenistan has ever known.
Another presidential election has passed in Turkmenistan, with another triumphant victory for the incumbent, in this case, Gurbanguly “The Protector” Berdymukhamedov, who won over 97 percent of the vote on February 12. The only question for some observers was whether a more reasonable victory margin was in the cards this year, at least as a gesture to apologists for Turkmenistan’s supposed progress toward democracy.
Berdymukhamedov’s victory with a turnout of over 96 percent still does not quite reach the near-perfect results his predecessor garnered. But give it time.
The Leader of the Nation is in place for Kazakhstan’s 20th anniversary celebrations.
Kazakhstan's 20th independence anniversary is set to trigger celebrations across the country next month. Of course, organizers have not forgotten to stroke President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s burgeoning personality cult, for where would the country be today without Nazarbayev’s decades of leadership?
Last week Almaty officials unveiled another new monument to “The Leader of the Nation,” this time in the appropriately named First President's Park. The shrine features a statue of Nazarbayev sitting on a slab of granite. Behind him stretch two eagle wings decorated with famous landmarks in Almaty and Astana. The wings symbolize the country's two biggest cities as the driving force behind the independent state.
At the unveiling on November 11, Almaty Mayor Akhmetzhan Yesimov praised his boss: “Heads of state have recognized the President of Kazakhstan as the prominent politician on a global scale, who has made an enormous contribution to nuclear disarmament, establishment of the Asian security system, [and] development of integration,” Gazeta.kz dutifully quoted him as saying.
This latest tribute follows one erected in Astana in 2009, the Kazakh Eli complex, which also prominently features the president.
The rush to erect monuments to the Leader has also spread beyond Kazakhstan's borders—Turkish officials placed a statue of Nazarbayev in central Ankara in 2010 for his services to the Turkic-speaking world.