[GlobalPost Moscow correspondent Miriam Elder recently traveled to Turkmenistan where she reported on the country's new leadership, below, as well as its stability and the battle for its natural gas resources.]
ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan — When one of the world’s most eccentric dictators died two years ago, many hoped the Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan would become a new country.
Saparmurat Niyazov — better known as Turkmenbashi, or “Father of all Turkmen,” a name he gave himself — ruled the country with an iron fist. Critics, be they close advisors or random Turkmen speaking freely, were jailed. Travel restrictions were tight, and government officials were forbidden from traveling abroad.
Two years into the rule of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, health minister under Turkmenbashi and the longest serving minister in his cabinet, things have changed — at least on the surface.
The photos of Turkmenbashi that adorned offices, stadiums, theaters and the facades of buildings around the country have been taken down. They have been replaced with photos of Berdymukhamedov, standing in front of a traditional Turkmen rug and staring longingly at a white dove.
Berdymukhamedov lifted the ban on opera enforced by his predecessor — but the ban on ballet remains. The names of the months have been changed back to the original. Turkmenbashi had named them after himself and his mother, who died in a massive earthquake when he was just 8 years old.
Women stand on Ashgabat's main square practicing for the annual independence day parade.
In a two-for-one shot, Berdymukhamedov pleased foreign investors by redenominating the country’s currency, and pleased himself by removing Turkmenbashi’s face from all the bills, except the highest denomination, 500 manat ($175). Rumors in Ashgabat, the capital, hold that Berdymukhamedov plans to print a 1,000-manat note and put his face on that.
“He seems to be becoming his own person,” said one western diplomat. “Even more so recently, he’s got this confidence to exude.”
Berdymukhamedov spent the first year of his presidency taking some steps to opening up the country, aware that foreign investment and expertise would be needed to develop its massive gas reserves. Estimates vary on how much gas Turkmenistan actually holds, but experts agree that it ranks among the world’s top-four national gas reserves.
He eased travel restrictions inside the country, lifting checkpoints, and made it easier for all to travel abroad. He himself took about a dozen official trips during his first year in office.
In a much-touted move, Berdymukhamedov brought internet access to Turkmenistan. Yet internet cafes are sparse and — like nearly everything in the country — are state-owned. Clerks write down users’ identification details, and a video camera adorns every room. Certain websites known to turn a critical eye to the regime are inaccessible.
Some remain hopeful that the country, a post-Soviet backwater, will continue to open up and reform, easing access to foreign investors and expanding the freedoms of its own impoverished people.
“What we’ve seen over the past year gives me a great deal of optimism,” said Arsim Zekolli, the Organization for Security and Cooperation’s ambassador to Turkmenistan.
Most, however, are more skeptical.
“He’s done a lot, improved a lot, but recently there seem to be some things to set it back a bit,” the western diplomat said.
The first sign came this summer, when Turkmenistan banned several dozen students from leaving the country to study at the American University of Central Asia in nearby Kyrgyzstan. Many students hadn't heard of the quiet measure until reaching the airport in July and being told they were forbidden to leave. Subsequent attempts by the U.S. embassy to transfer the students to a similar program in Bulgaria were also thwarted.
Turkmenistan gave no explanation for the move, but diplomatic sources in Ashgabat say the government likely feared the democratic principles being taught at the school.
“There’s talk that they’re taught to be more democratic and they thought they were bringing this back,” the diplomat said.
Then in October, Turkmenistan banned the newest crop of Peace Corps volunteers from entering the country.
Sources in Ashgabat point to the close coterie that surrounds Berdymukhamedov, many of them dating from the days of Turkmenbashi. Some push for more openness, some to remain one of the world’s last hermit states. It is a constant struggle.
Berdymukhamedov himself has exhibited similar eccentricities to those favored by his predecessor. In a highly publicized move in July, the former health minister — a dentist by training — opened a new state-of-the-art hospital in Ashgabat’s poshest district. It was only fitting, then, that he should conduct the first operation, promptly removing a cancerous tumor from behind a patient’s ear.
“He’s making this … image that says I’m superfit, I can do anything,” the diplomat said.
Both Ashgabat and Turkmenbashi, a Caspian port city named after the former dictator, boast one bookshop apiece. They are government-owned and carry few books aside from the Ruhnama, a sort of Turkmen moral bible penned by Turkmenbashi, cookbooks written by the new president, and posters and calendars featuring their images.
Criticism of the leadership — former or current — remains a great taboo.
“No one speaks out against the president, ” said one man in the city of Mary, in central Turkmenistan. “Right away, you're arrested and jailed and considered an enemy of the people for life. They go after your family, your friends.”
Turkmen are loath, upon first meeting, to even criticize some of the leadership’s more bizarre moves. Smoking cigarettes outside has been banned since 2000 — rumor has it that Turkmenbashi ordered the move after he himself quit smoking, and diplomats in the capital say they are told to refrain from smoking before meeting the current president, who cannot stand the smell.
Turkmen take it, however, with ease. “I agree with it,” said one man in Ashgabat. “Now, if they had banned ice cream I would have been upset.”
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