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Strokes to Saparmurat Niyazov's Political Portrait

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On 19 February 2005, Saparmurat Niyazov will be turning 65. Niyazov has been heading Turkmenistan for the last 20 years. Having become the First Secretary of the Communist Party's Central Committee in 1985, perhaps the youngest of the Soviet Union republics' leaders at the time, he was elected President of the independent state five years later.

Twenty years... In these years, Niyazov has not only established himself as a statesman and political leader in Turkmens' national and public perception. He has become something more than that - an embodiment, a humanized symbol of today's Turkmenistan with all its originality and peculiarity. It appears to have happened so not because 20 years are a long period itself, but, first of all, due to the fact that Saparmurat Niyazov's life and political path have in many respects (primarily) absorbed and reflected the whole historical period of Turkmenistan and the Turkmen people with all its heroic spirit and tragic moments, losses and creation.

At first sight, Niyazov's biography in general is typical enough of many current statesmen in power that established themselves during the Soviet times. He graduated from Leningrad Polytechnic Institute, worked at an industrial enterprise, joined the Party bodies and then made a successful and speedy political career to the top. However, it is just a facade. Behind it, there is a completely different story of long-standing fierce struggle for survival, self-assertion and realization of the set goals. Actually, the life left no alternative for a four-year old boy whose father perished during World War II. Then, at the age of eight, he became an orphan following the destructive earthquake on October 6, 1948, that together with 160 thousand citizens of Ashgabat had taken the life of his mother and two brothers and razed the city to the ground.

Later, he was taken to the Orphanage. Director Nikolai Gubenko, in his great movie "Wounded fledglings", showed precisely what an orphanage looked like. At the time, millions of children were "wounded fledglings". They despised fascists and revenged for dead fathers in their "war games", exchanging their meager bread ration for clasp-knives made by German prisoners of war. For these boys, the life was neither buoyant nor rosy. There were even no half-tints. It had only white and black colors. Many of them, those post-war orphans, broke, took to drink, became criminals and incorrigible cynics and scoundrels. But there were also many of them, beaten by the life at its very beginning, who, unlike their safe coevals, subsequently grew to truly strong and bright personalities.

At the same time, Saparmurat Niyazov's character as a leader, despite his formation in the Soviet, cosmopolitan in its core, environment, is deeply national. Since time immemorial, Turkmens selected Serdars, chiefs or leaders, by taking into account conformity of their personal character traits to the objective requirements of the people in the specific historical situation, rather than their age, social status or wealth. In the course of the whole eight centuries-old Turkmen statehood history these situations were always extreme. All successive historical events such as the Seljuk Turkmens expansion to the West, the conquest and development of new territories in the Middle East, Mesopotamia and Trans-Caucuses, the Turkmen Ottoman Empire's increased might and greatness, and its permanent, centuries-old confrontation with the Western European coalition of city-states, and, after the loss of their own statehood, the struggle for existence and survival with strong and often hostile neighbors surrounding them made Turkmens elect and value such a leader who was strict enough, strong and steadfast in defending Turkmen national interests, no matter what was it - the territory, wealth or people. Niyazov is truly such man. One cannot win him by making friends with him at informal summits. He doesn't strive for friendship with "the great ones of this world" in exchange for concessions. In dialogs with foreign counterparts, Niyazov is specific to the point and frank, and always says "no", if necessary. He is fully aware that in international politics there are no permanent friends, but only permanent interests.

... April 2002. Ashgabat hosts the first Caspian Summit. The Presidents of Caspian states sit round the table reading out "home-made" statements. All of a sudden, Niyazov sharply changes the tune of talks and announces that he refuses to discuss, even theoretically, concessions on the issue of sovereign rights to the Turkmen oil deposits in the Caspian Sea under any pretext. Journalists, attending the Summit, were shocked by the demarche. Some of them thought it was "inhospitable", as if it was a gathering of friends round the well-laid table, and not the high-level talks on the most serious and fundamental problem of interstate relations. This episode shows the real Niyazov. He is ready to break the diplomatic protocol, diplomatic language and honestly tell his position in his counterpart's face. He is not afraid of complications in personal relations when the national interests are at stake. They call him "a tough negotiator". It is possibly so, yet, for a politician such reference is a compliment rather than an insult. When the summit was over, one of the Russian journalists, during the talk with me, noted: "I think, if in late 80-s Niyazov chaired the Kremlin, the Soviet Union would have existed another 300 years or so".

With the collapse of the Soviet Union Niyazov again faced the main and harsh challenge of the time - the necessity to struggle for survival. It was the country's and nation's survival in the most complicated and fully intricate new geopolitical conditions. At that moment, Turkmenistan had deplorable starting positions. The country literally had no serious industrial production. Its agriculture, wholly oriented to the production of raw cotton for almost bankrupt factories of Reutov and Ivanov towns in Russia, was on the verge of collapse. This dismal picture was complemented by Turkmenistan's dependence on imports of main foodstuffs, given the lack of hard currency reserves. It was the result of the vicious "gas-dollars" centralized distribution system when the republic received only 2 per cent of the total value earned from Turkmen gas exports to Europe.

The most important thing, however, was, quoting a classic writer, the "collapse of minds". New reformers in Russia, talking about the future liberal "paradise" and macroeconomic laws, pauperized new and new millions of their compatriots. "Popular Fronts" in the Caucuses, Baltic region, and Moldova unleashed ethnic cleansings, and extremist Islamic movements in neighboring Central Asia were gaining strength. These troubled waters reached patriarchal Turkmenistan through mass media, crowds of visiting "businessmen", and, sometimes, openly sent political emissaries. They excited imagination of the youth and turned their heads. Under these circumstances, Niyazov directly addressed the nation (afterwards, he will always do this on the most important and fundamental issues of the country's development) with completely opposite slogans. They were: no "shock therapy", no privatization according to the models of Chicago and other "schools", solidarity and union of all Turkmen people regardless of their nationality and religion, and reliance, first of all, on the nation's own strength, experience, traditions and conceptions in elaborating political and economic development models of the state. As a matter of fact, it was the mobilization project, considering short deadlines for its realization, as the external opposition to it, both from separate states and a number of international, mostly, financial institutions, acted more openly and in different forms - from the obtrusion of "light" credits to curtail social programs to the open diplomatic pressure and blackmail.

Niyazov didn't give in and withstood this pressure. Three-four years later, having not squandered the proceeds from the hydrocarbons export, the main item of income at that moment, on the formation of outwardly attractive infrastructure of consumerism, the state sent them for creation of the processing industry, large-scale social security system, construction of roads, export pipelines and telecommunications, completion of gasification of the country, agricultural modernization and development of tourism. Turkmenistan literally got off the chains of backwardness. It decisively parted with the sweet but waning features of a peaceful provincial city - panel houses in the city center, small handicraft industries, loftily called "factories and plants". It gave up everything that constituted the habitual, relaxed and unhurried life style.

The country's complex modernization project initiated by the President has necessitated the change in the psychology of directors at all levels, their attitude to the entrusted task. Niyazov is often blamed for strictness, sometimes excessive, towards his subordinates. There is a grain of truth in it. However, it is just a grain. Having a very busy schedule, Niyazov demands the same from the others. He does not allow officials to relax, stands no complacency of theirs, not hesitating to part with them. At the same time, Niyazov can forgive a man if he was mistaken, who stumbled due to the lack of knowledge or experience. What he doesn't forgive is a malicious intent, deliberate deception, or intentional wrongdoing. An official, even the high-ranking one, charged with corruption will not occupy the other, less noticeable state post or find a job with a business entity. Niyazov himself will put him to shame in public with broadcasting of the event on all state TV channels. Is it severe punishment? May be, but undoubtedly, it is, first of all, justified from the point of state interests.

In late 1998, a series of open criminal hearings over a number of high-ranking officials charged with corruption took place in Turkmenistan. At that time, on Niyazov's personal instruction, the confiscated luxurious mansions were distributed among large families. In addition, Niyazov suggested that the Court should demand that corrupted officials return stolen funds to the treasury as a condition for commutation. This is the logic of life: if one stole a thing that belongs to the people, he should return it to them. In few years, we will observe the similar situation in post-revolutionary Georgia. Here, it would be to the point to say a few words about "rose", "orange" and other revolutions, which have become a live issue for today's post-Soviet states.

Somehow, the liberal phraseology of their creators, or, to be more precise, executors, is presented as a reason that forced the people to change their rulers in Georgia or Ukraine and, at the same time, as a cause for the West's favor and, automatically, Russia's and other "retrograde" CIS regimes' discontent. In the meantime, liberal slogans are just part of the program relating primarily to the model of economic development that was equally inherent in the former leadership of these countries, just as their wish to remain on friendly terms with the West. The main discourse, the slogan of "colored" revolutions is the nationwide integrity (the unity of nation and state, fighting separatism and regionalism of local "chiefs"), social justice (restoration of social justice principles, overcoming of the society's monstrous material polarization), and, finally, anti-corruption society (getting rid of the established system of nepotism and clan affiliations).

It was Niyazov who initiated and realized these ideas in his country much earlier than these states did, using other methods and starting "from the top". Therefore, when from time to time the "colored" scenarios are applied to those CIS countries with the former communist leadership on their top, they have no relation to Turkmenistan. Niyazov has long ago put off the grey suit of the party "apparatchik". Today, he acts as a national leader in the full sense of the word, who is not burdened by force of life circumstances, biography, experience and, finally, political sense with no ideological, family or clan affiliation grips. He is neither a liberal and communist, nor retrograde and revolutionary. Niyazov is a pragmatic politician to the marrow of his bones, working in conformity with the national interests of Turkmenistan. His strong side is capability to defend them in our complicated and rapidly changing time.


TURKMENISTAN magazine, (Moscow), February 2005