On May 24-25 many portraits of President Saparmurat Niyazov suddenly disappeared from the streets of the capital of Turkmenistan. This was done on orders from Turkmenbashi. Hundreds of portraits of the president, which until recently were conspicuous on government buildings, businesses, clinics and schools, disappeared overnight. A special team of workers even disassembled the monumental bronze statute of the president that stood in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Turkmenistan (Lenta.ru, May 25).
According to the international organization Human Rights Watch, the Turkmen variant of totalitarianism is one of the harshest kinds among all countries in the world (Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org, January 20). The default model of the Turkmen dictatorship most closely resembles that of North Korea. In fact, the similarities go beyond mere commonalities between outward manifestations of the cult of personality in the two countries. For example, Turkmen government officials, similar to North Korean citizens, are required to wear a small medallion carrying a portrait of the leader, which is usually pinned to a lapel. In essence, Ashgabat began to follow the North Koran ideological model of Chuch’e, which implies the autarkic over-reliance on the principle of economic self-sufficiency. Further, despite seeming ineffectiveness in developing desert horticulture, Turkmenistan produces enough wheat so that Ashgabat is not required to import this vital food.
The changes that began to appear in Turkmenistan since the beginning of this year ostensibly point to the possibility that the totalitarian regime was gradually beginning to abandon its isolation from the West. The first such symptom became apparent in January of this year, when exit visas, issued by the authorities and required for every citizen of Turkmenistan wishing to travel outside the republic, were revoked. In March President Niyazov also revoked the mandatory quota of 500 individuals, formerly necessary for the registration of religious associations. Finally, on May 13 Niyazov repealed criminal punishment for participating in the activities of any unregistered religious association.
According to the Turkmen opposition website (https://www.gundogar.org), in practice, by introducing a number of insignificant democratic reforms, Niyazov is simply trying to reduce pressure from the international community, which recently has been increasingly concerned about human rights violations in Turkmenistan. As the website notes, the resolution adopted by the UN Commission on Human Rights on April 15, which yet again denounced human rights violations in Turkmenistan, “apparently was sufficiently specific so that the dictator for the first time became doubtful about the absolute impunity of his barbaric deeds” (gundogar.org, May 24).
Nonetheless, it is also plausible that in reality Niyazov’s democratic reforms are mere fiction, intended to reduce Western vigilance. According to the newspaper Vremiya Novostey, immediately after the announcement concerning revocation of exit visas, border guards received a list of unreliable individuals who are prohibited from traveling outside the republic (Vremya Novosti, January 27). Moreover, according to Forum-18, an international organization specializing in defending religious rights of believers in former Communist countries, in practice, revocation of the mandatory quota necessary for the registration of religious associations does not mean that any given community of believers would necessarily be registered (forum18.org, May 10). Forum-18 also notes that even after the issuance of the presidential order in May, the Turkmenistani law on religion still contains an article prohibiting activities of unregistered religious associations as well as Article 205 of the Administrative Code, which imposes a monetary penalty for such offenses (gundogar.org, May 24).
As gundogar.org suggests, the recent disappearance of Niyazov’s portraits is directly related to the arrival of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) delegation in Turkmenistan on May 28. Niyazov promised OSCE delegation members access to prisons and to acquaint OSCE representatives with prison conditions. By doing so, Niyazov is attempting to demonstrate that “no one sits in jails for their political, religious or other expressions.” As the gundogar.org insightfully suggests, the only statue of the president that was quietly disassembled was located in the immediate proximity to the building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan, which would have been undoubtedly visited by the Western diplomats (gundogar.org, May 24).