In February 2003 posing as a teacher Andrew Drummond entered Ashgabad the capital of Turkmenistan, a country out of bounds to journalists, and seldom visited by tourists.
Within days he was up on the podium with Niyazoz ‘The Great Turkmenbashi’ as the ruthless dictator took his birthday salute.
His report for ‘The Times’ highlighted the widespread torture and oppression in a country which stands next to North Korea as one of the world’s most oppressive dictatorships.
‘The Great Dictator’s Birthday Party masks menace’ – ‘The Times’ Feb 28 2003
Disguised as a teacher, Andrew Drummond sneaks into a forbidden state
IT WAS the moment when the President was presented with a thoroughbred horse ‘as a token of affection from the people’ that did it for my neighbour in the crowd.
‘Four legs good, two legs bad,’ he whispered with a grin.
For an hour we had been watching the grotesque 63rd birthday celebrations for President Niyazov of Turkmenistan, in the great square opposite his marble and golden-domed palace.
Thousands of citizens had been bussed in to wave their national flags. Troops goose-stepped past his podium chanting ‘Halk. Watan. Turkmenbashi’ (One People.One Nation. One Father) in scenes uncannily reminiscent of Nazi Germany.
The portly Mr Niyazov, who already rejoices in the titles of Great Hero of the Nation and Father of all Turkmen, was officially elevated to the status of Prophet.
A letter from his ministers read: ‘God awards such strength, such greatness, such fate, only to those he favours and sincerely loves as God’s messenger.’
Such scenes would have verged on the comic if the truth about Turkmenistan were not so grim.
Under its paranoid, megalomaniac leader, it combines the repression of the Soviet Union under Stalin with the isolation of North Korea now in the Kim Jong Il era.
It sits on some of the biggest oil and gas reserves in the world, but the great majority of its people live on the poverty line.
Appropriately, the ambassadors of Britain, Germany and France found reasons to decline the President’s invitation to his birthday bash.
Foreign journalists are banned from Turkmenistan, but by posing as a teacher I gained access to a country which, as my neighbour observed, is distinctly Orwellian.
Niyazov, a former Communist Party chief, leads the ‘Democratic Party of Turkmenistan’.
All other parties are banned. The apparent goal of the Ministry of Tourism is to keep foreign visitors out.
The capital, Ashgabat, boasts wide tree-lined avenues, fountains, buildings made from Turkish marble: and endless monuments to the Great Turkmenbashi, or ‘Father of the Turkmens’.
A gold statue of the great man revolves around Ashgabat’s Neutrality Monument.
Another shows him as a cherubic baby being held by his mother atop a raging bull.
This is the earthquake memorial, (right)
commemorating the 1946 disaster in which 110,000
people – half of Ashgabat’s population – were killed.
Mr Niyazov’s mother is said to have died saving him.
Doctored pictures of him adorn every second building
in the capital, his hair is dyed black in all new pictures.
And then there are Mr Niyazov’s endless edicts.
He has had towns, months and even a meteor named after him. Monday is now called Turkmenbashi day.
He has issued a decree extending adolescence to 25 and postponing old age to 85.
He has given the official title ‘inspirational’ to ages between 62 and 73; old age is officially between 85 and 97, although life expectancy for the average Turkmen male is just 60.
Mr Niyazov plays a fatherly role, sometimes stopping his motorcade to distribute cash to children, and he pardons hundreds of common criminals each year.
But Western diplomats say that he is no joke.
‘The comical aspects of Niyazov are a distraction,’ one Western official said.
‘While we may laugh at his quirks, people are being rounded up, families are being transported, and there are credible reports of widespread torture.’
Robert Templer, Central Asia director of the International Crisis Group, a respected monitoring organisation, said: ‘There’s a real risk that it could become the next Afghanistan, and it could certainly become a danger to the rest of the world.’
The people of Turkmenistan live in constant fear. KNB secret police agents in black leather jackets and black BMWs are ubiquitous. Police or army conscripts are stationed at almost every street corner.
Citizens need permission to travel from one end of the country to the other, and cannot go abroad.
Dissidents and their families are rounded up and
locked away in labour camps which have a combined
population of about 20,000. It could be worse.
Members of the People’s Assembly recently demanded
that enemies of the President be ‘drawn and quartered’
and their organs left for vultures and lizards in the
baking Karakum Desert, which covers 90 per cent of
The latest round-ups took place last November after an alleged assassination plot involving a gun attack on Mr Niyazov’s armour-plated Mercedes.
Those accused included Boris Shikmuradov, the former Foreign Minister, who had defected to Moscow after being demoted to Ambassador to China in 1991.
Mr Shikmuradov was smuggled back into Turkmenistan last autumn to organise opposition. When he appeared on the wanted list he wrote an open letter accusing Mr Niyazov of staging the attack himself so that he could initiate a purge. ‘I intend to hand myself in to the National Security Ministry of Turkmenistan in the hope my arrest will stop the massive arrests and torture of innocent people,’ he said. ‘I write this statement while I am free. I can only assume what will happen to me in the near future… we have several times witnessed how people were physically and psychologically tortured.’ He was duly arrested in December. A little later, looking grey-faced and drugged, he confessed his crimes on television and was jailed for life.
Mr Niyazov ignores all foreign protests, and ensures that his country is one of the most isolated in the world, save possibly for North Korea. His internal security apparatus taps telephones, controls the press and blocks internet access.
Turkmenistan’s only two internet cafes have been closed. There is no foreign news on television, only traditional song and dance and all-day eulogies to the President. But while his control of power is absolute, it may also be his own undoing, according to the International Crisis Group.
His paranoia is such that he sacks anyone who achieves prominence and the list of internal enemies grows longer. Last year he began moving against the Ministry for National Security, dismissing its head and sentencing him to 20 years for drug trafficking. He gave the job to Colonel Batyr Busakov, a member of the 3,000-strong Presidential Guard, the only people he really trusts and on whom his power depends. A report by the International Crisis Group, Cracks in the Marble, says that the guard appears to have unlimited resources and carries out special secret operations for the President.
But the report quotes a KNB officer as saying: ‘Officers are very resentful because they are falling victims to the system they applied for years: arrests, torture, imprisonment and confiscation of property. They have lost their protected position and have nothing else to lose.’ The Army has also lost the privileged status it had under Soviet control, and conscripts are used as an unofficial labour force.
The crisis group says that the number of dissidents in Ashgabat is growing, but there were few signs this week that the ‘cult of Turkmenbashi’ is on the wane.
Niyazov’s personality cult often focuses on his mother, who died in an earthquake. The word for bread was replaced with her name
He similarly renamed April in her honour and also renamed the days of the week, with Tuesday now ‘Young Day’ and Saturday ‘Spirituality day’
Festivals include the ‘A Drop of Water Is a Grain Of Gold Day’ , the ‘Day of Neutrality’, and ‘Melon Day’.
Niyazov has had airports, seaports, a meteorite, yoghurt and perfumes named in his honour.
He has abolished old age. Adolescence now extends to the age of 25.
Schoolchildren’s compulsory reading consists of his collected works.