Last night, the carrier rocket sent a special container with the sacred symbols of Turkmenistan: the flag and the unique philosophical work by Saparmurat Niyazov, Ruhnama, to the near-earth orbit from the Baikonur space center. Ruhnama is a messenger of space and good. It delivers clandestine, interesting facts from the past to the present. Ruhnama is a ship.”—TV 4 Turkmenistan
On August 25, a 39-foot golden statue of Türkmenbasy was removed from atop the Arch of Neutrality after twelve years of constant rotation, his face and outstretched arm pointing always towards the sun. Türkmenbasy, the moniker of Saparmurat Niyazov, governed Turkmenistan from its independence in 1991 until his death in 2006. Turkmenistan had been under Russian administration since the nineteenth century and became the Turkmen SSR in 1925 under Soviet rule. Niyazov, who became head of the Communist Party of the Turkmen SSR in 1985, was in a prime position to seize leadership after independence was declared. By 1999, Niyazov was declared President for Life, and by 2001 he published the Ruhnama, a sort of combined autobiography and historiography meant to define Turkmen identity, and was anointed Türkmenbasy (head of the Turkmens), the title he still retains today.
You probably have never heard anything about Turkmenistan because its government does not want you to. It is a nation of 4 million that lies east of the Caspian Sea whose principal neighbors are Iran, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan. Very little enters Turkmenistan, especially in the way of people; the two layers of dictatorship and post-Soviet bureaucracy make obtaining a visa notoriously difficult. And, besides gas, of which Turkmenistan has the fourth largest reserves in the world, very little leaves the country. As one might expect from a dictatorship with large gas reserves, much of the profits are siphoned off to private bank accounts that fund the numerous ostentatious structures of the capital, Ashgabat. Due to its “positive neutrality” in international affairs and its dismal human rights record, Turkmenistan keeps a low profile. And because it sits on vast amounts of resources, no country wants to hurt its chances at trade in the future by unnecessary provocation over internal affairs. Turkmenistan in fact takes great pride in its staunch neutrality, which was ratified by the UN General Assembly on December 12, 1995 and later instituted as a national holiday. In 2002, on orders of Niyazov, the whole month of December, originally Dekabr, was changed to the Turkmen word for neutrality, Bitaraplyk. Additionally, numerous other months were renamed, like April, which was changed from Aprel to Gurbansoltan, the name of Niyazov’s mother who was killed in an earthquake, and, most importantly, the renaming of January from Ýanwar to Türkmenbasy.
The grandest commemoration of Turkmenistan’s neutrality is the aptly named Arch of Neutrality, a 246-foot structure which is the tallest in all of Ashgabat. It, like the statue it once carried, is slated to be dismantled this year. The fate of the Presidential Palace and the grand mosques Niyazov constructed is still unclear. About the extravagant ice palace that he planned to construct in the middle of the desert there is even less information. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, former dentist, and now probably President for Life, after succeeding Niyazov in 2006, has taken it upon himself to undo many of the manifestations of Niyazov’s insipid cult of personality. Yet, in the place of Niyazov’s portraits in government buildings, he is now placing portraits of himself. The influence of this developing cult of personality can even be felt just a few miles away from this very campus. In case you missed it, last Friday, September 24, was Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov Day in Trenton. After receiving a prize from the International Informatization Academy there last year, he was then bestowed the additional honor of a city holiday by Mayor Douglas Palmer.
If this bizarre confluence in Trenton is any indication, perhaps the extreme absurdity of Turkmenistan may indeed remain to some extent intact under Berdimuhamedov’s regime. He can often be seen wearing a Western suit but with the added embellishment of large traditional Turkmen hat made out of sheepskin called a telpek. The Ruhnama’s role is diminished, but is apparently still required at schools and universities, and possibly to obtain a driver’s license as well. Niyazov even once promised his people that if they read his book three times a day they were guaranteed to enter heaven. The massive Ruhnama statue in Ashgabat, which automatically opens every evening at 8 p.m. and plays a video, will likely remain for the near future. Berdimuhamedov did express concern about some of the history in the book, perhaps about the claims that the Turkmen invented the wagon and iron smelting. But by May of this year, he had already published his own manifesto of sorts, under the far less exotic title of The Grandson, Materializing the Dream of the Grandfather. Despite its Obama-esque ring, the book does not adopt a different tone than the Ruhnama. One rather telling quotation informs us that Berdimuhamedov is “the envoy of God and the son of his nation.”
In other areas though, Berdimuhamedov has been able to exert a moderating influence. In 2001, Niyazov closed the opera, ballet, and the circus, declaring authoritatively, “Who needs Tosca or La Traviata anymore?” He found the art forms to be against the “national mentality.” His successor took a more rational approach by legalizing the art forms again in 2008, placing particular value on the importance for the Turkmens of equestrian events that take place at the circus venue. Other laws, like the banning of recorded music due to fears of lip-syncing, were also reversed in the past few years. The status of bans on gold crowns, make-up on TV (because Turkmen women are already beautiful enough), and car radios is still unknown. As of now, Berdimuhamedov is without a doubt filling the shoes of a dictator in other areas, but without the eccentricities and absurdities that characterized the rule of Niyazov. Instead, he is going the route of dictators like Mugabe, who is oppressive and ruthless, but not exactly quirky in the same way. With the passing of Niyazov’s legacy, comes the possibility of the extinction of Absurdistan, a place so dysfunctional and illogical as to be impossibly surreal to visitors from anywhere comparatively “normal.”
The only other country in the world that still qualifies as an Absurdistan is North Korea, which is going through a succession episode of its own this week. There the infamous Kim Il Sung was not President for Life, but rather is President for Eternity. In contrast to Niyazov, whose personality turned out to only have temporary currency, dismantling a statue of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang would be blasphemous. Niyazov, despite all his attempts, was not able to reach the level of a deity. On the day of his death, the reporters on Watan, the Turkmen state-owned news show, kept their composure, while when Kim Il Sung died, reporters almost fell to the floor sobbing. Kim Jong-Il on the other hand has attained a cult of personality that is more at the level of Niyazov. His status is also not guaranteed, as he is not an eternal leader like his father. If his son succeeds him, as many are now speculating, Kim Jong-Il’s position could be easily diminished like Niyazov’s. But in that case there would be less of a unique legacy to erase. Though North Korea’s laws are by all means draconian, they are not absurd in the same way that Niyazov’s laws are—banning gold crowns, for example. A Swiss photojournalist, Nicholas Regetti, who has the fortune of being one of few people to have visited both countries, commented that Niyazov did not demonstrate the same control over his country, and that there was a certain “lightness” to his authority compared to the Kims’. This lightness manifested itself in his legislating repeatedly on silly whims, whereas the Kims took their rule far too seriously to legislate on trivialities like make-up or radios.
North Korea and Turkmenistan are most alike in their insistence on almost complete insulation from the rest of the world. For American citizens especially, the two countries’ visas are the most difficult to acquire. In neither country is a tourist allowed to travel the country alone; rather, the tourist must be accompanied by a guide at all times. Yet both countries have extensive tourist infrastructure considering their isolationist entry policies. In Ashgabat, five-star hotels built in the past few years are never occupied at more than 50 percent capacity at most, while in Pyongyang hotels sit empty for days, and when just one visitor comes they throw a whole banquet with food for a hundred to provide an illusion. There is a confusing dichotomy in these countries between at the same time wanting to show off the opulent buildings and massive plazas in the capitals, while also fearing that foreigners will corrupt the ignorance of their citizens. In the end, the latter wins out. Only Eritrea has less press freedom than Turkmenistan and North Korea, where there is only state-owned media.
The futures of two of the most totalitarian and simultaneously absurd countries are uncertain. They will most likely remain totalitarian, but their absurdities seem to be fading. These absurdities are comic spectacles to outside observers: the arbitrary bans of Niyazov or the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang under construction since 1987. There is some solace in knowing that there is a place where everything is upside down and the rules all arbitrary. Pyongyang and Ashgabat are like exhibitions in this sense, but not exhibitions in which anyone should have to live. The two cities are wanton, the result of unfettered personality in a geographical vacuum. The extreme of authority is exposed: the ability of one man, one ship, to lead everything astray.