Cult hero who fritters away state's wealth

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The Independent Online
In a region with a rich tradition of luxury-loving, self-glorifying despots, President Saparmurad Niyazov of Turkmenistan just about takes the biscuit. Every newspaper, every billboard, every banknote and every office in his desert nation has a picture of the man known to his people as "Turkmenbashi" (leader of all the Turkmen).

"May my tongue shrivel up and my bones turn to ashes if I betray my country or my president," chant Turkmen children every morning. In Ashkhabad, the capital, a statue of Mr Niyazov's mother nursing the president as a child depicts him as a Christ-like figure.

As Communist Party leader before the collapse of the USSR, and then as president of the first independent Turkmen state in history, he has established a personality cult as huge as those of Stalin and Mao. Towns, mosques and roads are named after the man who, according to his critics, is frittering away Turkmenistan's gas and oil wealth in an orgy of corruption and spending.

Avdy Kuliyev, a former Turkmen foreign minister who broke with the President in 1992, said: "Niyazov has begun to lead the people back into the Middle Ages. Beginning in 1991, when we achieved independence, we began to slip back from the level of development that we attained under Russian hegemony to the 19th century or possibly even the 18th."

Mr Kuliyev told the magazine Transition: "Niyazov was counting on the country being able to survive on the proceeds of our oil and gas, which would generate enough wealth that everyone would have a Mercedes, no one would have to work, and the population would lie around drinking tea and thinking of nothing ... There is only one way out, by getting rid of this leader and this government."

According to the US-based human-rights group Freedom House, Turkmenistan last year was one of the 17 most repressive countries on earth. With the average person's monthly income hovering at pounds 10 or less and annual inflation of more than 300 per cent, most of its 4.5 million people do not even have the consolation of enjoying energy-derived personal wealth.

Since independence, Turkmenistan's deve-lopment has been held back by two fundamental problems. One is its reliance on Russia to transport its gas, its main export, to the markets of Ukraine and the Transcaucasian states.

The other is that these countries are so poor they have run up debts to Turkmenistan of about pounds 1.25bn.

If Mr Niyazov is to fill his treasury's coffers and start modernising his country, it is essential for Turkmenistan not only to collect its debts but to develop new markets.

This is one of the main impulses behind the Turkmen drive to build a gas pipeline across Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Another is the desire to loosen the grip which Russia currently maintains on Turkmen export pipelines.

With prickly Uzbekistan, turbulent Afghanistan and zealous Iran for neighbours, Mr Niyazov is not foolish enough to think that either he or his vulnerable country can survive without Russian blessing.

However, according to Mr Kuliyev, that has not prevented Mr Niyazov from occasionally playing the anti-Russian card in an effort to win popularity at home.