So he has his face on every banknote, and picture on the outside (and the inside) of every public and many private buildings. Public statues of him are everywhere (the gold busts are a true source of wonder), and his name festoons streets, parks and airports across the country.
TV and radio offer ongoing eulogies and relate what he gets up to (including long episodes from state meetings where very little seems to go on). A few times every hour they display quotes from his book on how to be a good Turkmen.
Who is he? He is President Saparmurat Niyazov (who changed his last name in 1993 to Turkmenbashi – ‘father of all Turkmen’.
His grip on power is fairly much absolute, it seems. Opposition is reportedly difficult or illegal. So, apparently, are ability and success. His Ministers seem to lack not just personality enough (or permission) to have an independent existence, – rumours are that they are not even literate.
Foreign journalists need not apply. Turkmenistan does not need your distabilising influence. Nor does it need public internet (although access in homes is possible) or too many cellphones (the 25 year monopoly on telecoms granted to an American firm assures us of this). Although Russian satellite television (which everyone watches) is apparently easily available.
Of course, there is a flipside to the lack of freedom. The fixed exchange rate keeps things cheap for locals (and in theory expensive for tourists – the black market is illegal, but all pervasive). Most basics are completely free. This includes a quantity of food, gas (people leave elements burning rather than wasting a match), and water (used to clean pavements of leaves, and here we are in the middle of the desert). Petrol costs about NZ5 cents a litre.
There is a distinction between ‘officialties’ and ‘realities’ in the Soviet style. And in many ways this seems to be a political system that has changed only its name since the days of the Communists (although thirteen years is enough time, one would think, to do more than issue new letterhead).
There was apparently an attempt to overthrow the government last year. But thirteen years of running everything look to be making him rather unwell anyway. The question is what will come after. perhaps the Kuwait of Central Asia (what Turkmenbashi maintains he is building). Perhaps something else.