Dictators: Central Asia's new idol
Lucy Ash on Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan
From billboards to TV screens to bottles of vodka, there is no escaping his pudgy features and Elvis-style backcombed hair. President Saparmurat Niyazov, who calls himself Turkmenbashi, or father of the Turkmen, has created the world's most relentless personality cult after North Korea. He renamed the month of January after himself and April after his mother; he banned ballet, gold teeth and recorded music; he ordered the construction of a lake in the midst of the desert and a ski resort on the snowless foothills of the Iranian border.
Niyazov likes monuments, the bigger the better. The most famous is a revolving gold statue of himself that rotates to face the sun. Much of the capital is a monument to his reign. Clad in sparkling marble, Ashgabat rises from the sand like a mirage, a mini Dubai.
Turkmenbashi can afford these folies de grandeur because his country enjoys the world's fifth-biggest reserves of natural gas. But most of his five million citizens live in poverty and life expectancy among women is the lowest in the former Soviet Union. Infant mortality is on a par with some of the poorest parts of Africa. Niyazov recently sacked 15,000 health workers and replaced them with army conscripts. The reporting of infectious diseases such as anthrax and bubonic plague is banned. Drug trafficking across the Afghan border is flourishing in a country labelled the third most corrupt on earth by Transparency International.
None of this bothers Niyazov, who got rid of elections long ago and declared himself president for life. All criticism is considered treason. Informants from the MNB (the KGB's successor organisation) infiltrate all levels of society; those who dissent are punished by imprisonment, house arrest, surveillance, incarceration in psychiatric facilities and torture. In June, a Radio Liberty journalist and a handful of human-rights activists were jailed and tortured. At the same time, European parliamentarians were in town discussing a new trade deal - this has now been put on hold but, given our appetite for gas, European concerns over human rights may be short-lived.
Niyazov's assault on education is particularly pernicious. Fewer girls attend classes and the universal textbook is the Ruhnama, the president's spiritual guide for his people. The result is an increasingly isolated and uneducated generation that, when he leaves the scene, may prove vulnerable to simple solutions to their problems, including Islamic fundamentalism.
Lucy Ash has reported from Turkmenistan for the BBC World Service and Radio 4