Person of the Year 2006
In 2005, President (for life) Niyazov of Turkmenistan extended his personality cult by ordering the construction of a vast zoo to hold 300 species of birds and animals (including penguins) in the Kara Kum desert. This is not Niyazov’s first major project. In 2000, he announced that a 2,000 km2 artificial lake was to be built in the desert, and in mid-2004 he demanded a giant ice-palace be erected in the mountains, despite average temperatures of 30ºc.
Turkmenistan is a landlocked republic (independent from Russia since 1991), about twice the size of the UK, with a population of c.5m. It shares borders with Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Iran, and Afghanistan, and adjoins the Caspian Sea. Much of the country is arid (c.80% desert) and, apart from cotton, the country’s most important resources are oil and gas.
In 1990, Saparmurat Niyazov was elected President, and in 1999 he declared himself President for life. Since then, Niyazov has ruled with an unusual ruthlessness. A number of human rights groups have condemned the exercise of imprisonment, exile, and a capricious use of authority. In 2000, for example, the fine for smoking in state buildings equalled a month’s wages, and in 2002 the army was placed in charge of the traffic police. (In 2003, unpaid traffic fines doubled every 12 hours, and after 3 days men were sent to collect the money in person.) Religious tolerance is non-existent, opposition parties are illegal, and the media are strictly controlled – to the point of re-censoring official Russian broadcasts.
Although his official biography claims Niyazov is ‘a lover of poetry, philosophy, history and music’, in 2001 he banned opera and ballet calling them ‘unnecessary’, and prohibited theatre stating that it had ‘exhausted its creative life’. He has similarly banned car radios, outlawed gold fillings, forbidden young men from having long hair or beards, and limited ownership of cats and dogs.
In 2001, he published the Ruhnama – a moral and spiritual guide – ‘written with the help of inspiration sent to my heart by God’. The Ruhnama is afforded respect equal to the Koran, and is required reading for all those taking the driving test.
In 2002, Niyazov renamed the days of the week and the months of year, naming January after himself, and April after his mother. The President also redefined the stages of life, decreeing, for example, that adolescence ends at 25. The cities of Turkmenistan are awash with portraits and statues of the President (and his mother), including the 12-metre Arch of Neutrality, and a giant gold-leaf statue of Niyazov that revolves through 360 degrees every 24 hours.
In 2004, 15,000 medical staff were replaced with army conscripts, and in 2005 Niyazov closed all hospitals outside the capital. A few months later, he banned recorded music from being played on television and at all public events, including weddings.
Niyazov has regularly hinted that Presidential elections might be held in 2008 (or in 2010, when he turns 70), stating ‘one man cannot remain President forever’.