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.
Many in Turkmenistan recall Niyazov as a terrible tyrant who imprisoned thousands. Many of his own deputy prime ministers, prosecutors, lesser ministers and top banking officials befell the same fate. It was for fear of his wrath that officials habitually took to addressing Niyazov as “the Great” and kissing his hand. And he was happy for that to happen.
Praise of the leader still takes place under Berdymukhamedov, although without as much hand kissing.
And yet, unlike Berdymukhamedov, the old president Niyazov did make print columns.
In uncut television coverage of his conversations with farmers and cattle-breeders he would often provide valuable fodder for newspapers hungry for absurdity.
He made international reporters happy with his peculiar bans on opera, ballet, gold teeth, long hair among the young, and his habit of renaming months and days of the week.
But if the televised turnout of his expensive and overblown grave in Kipchak is anything to go by, it is only foreign journalists that mourn his passing. And they’re not allowed into the country anyway.