During the fall of Gaddafi, a lot of media attention focussed on his utterly bizarre personality and preferences. People especially loved to make fun of his personal guard, which consisted entirely of female virgins whose compulsory work accessories included both machine guns and makeup (see example story). However as has been pointed out in this post by Pop Culture and the Third World (this time speaking about Kim Jong Il and snarky pop culture: “I think the important point, however, is that, whilst his eccentricities seem like good joke fodder for us outside North Korea, those eccentricities have caused a world of pain for those within North Korea.” I believe The Young Turks also did a clip that pointed out that it’s easy to make it all about laughing at how crazy a dictator is at the expense of actual empathy with the people or doing something to help them.
So yes, I did post a long list of crazy things done by Central Asian dictators. Most of the very bizarre items (pretty much the second half of the list) belong to the first president Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov, who ruled from independence in 1991 to his death in 2006. But I need to say more, otherwise it would be merely gawking at the brutality of the regime as a spectacle.
Much of the cult of personality of Niyazov has been toned down by his successor Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov (say that thrice). Most of the statues seem to be gone, especially the giant revolving one in the centre of Ashgabat with only a few gilded ones remaining. The days of the week have returned to Monday, Tuesday and so on and are no longer named after Niyazov’s relatives. However, Berdymuhamedov’s picture is everywhere, including on a billboard-type banner in the middle of a forest park (see photo below). It’s always printed in fake over-saturated colours and he always has a cheesy over-saturated smile. And he seems to be doing something relevant to the occation. In the hotel lobby, he was at his desk with documents. At the circus, he was on a horse. At the stadium, I believe he was in some sporting outfit.
Photo courtesy of Derek & Fiona Rendall
As the 11pm curfew shows, Turkmenistan is very much a police state. One incident sticks in mind. We crossed the border and stopped in the city of Dashoguz so our local guide could register our passports with the police. After wandering around, we came back to our overland truck to wait for the guide and were standing around the truck, attracting the curiosity of schoolkids. Then they ran off and a policeman came up to the spot where they were. “Do you speak Russian?” he asked us. I nodded in reflex but luckily he didn’t see. “If that kid comes here again, could you grab him and give me a shout? We’re just across the road…Oh, you don’t speak Russian?” he said when nobody responded. He had wanted us to do his policing for him against perhaps a 10 year old. Interestingly, the kids came back and even taunted the police again before running off. I am now a lot more cautious about volunteering that I speak a language when travelling.
And yet, we were surprised that the kids were so insolent to the police — either taunting them or in other cases throwing rubbish on the ground right in front of them. The truth is that outside of North Korea, I don’t think there are any totalitarian states in the classic sense of totalitarianism (eg. Stalin or the Cultural Revolution). Turkmenistan is the 3rd most repressive country with an almost complete government control on the media. Internet access is also strictly controlled (apparently during Niyazov’s time, you needed to present your passport to get into an internet cafe). However, even that does not compare to (say) the USSR in 1937. The tens of thousands of sattelite dishes that receive foreign TV are one proof. (Of course, playing totalitarian olympics will not do much good either so the above is not meant to be taken as saying it’s “not so bad”.)
Photo courtesy of Derek & Fiona Rendall
There is a difference though, which makes citizens of Turkmenistan disadvantaged compared to citizens of other dictatorships. This is an almost maximal ignorance on the part of the world community. People are ignorant enough about Central Asia, with the region getting close to last priority in international coverage. People’s only images about the region might be Borat, horses, deserts and “Arabs”. Turkmenistan is even worse-off. I doubt many people have heard of the country. At least Herman Cain knew that he didn’t know the president of Ubeki-beki-stan (see video). At least he was actively acknowledging his wilful ignorance — but Turkmenistan is the unknown unknown. North Korea, Burma, Iran and so on are firmly in the public consciousness with respect to human rights. But Berdymuhamedov could do whatever the fuck he wants and as long as he doesn’t engage in any outright massacres (although that might still not matter), who’s going to speak up?