by Farid TUKHBATULLIN (2007)
The inauguration of the new president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, on 14 February this year excited the world media’s keen interest in Turkmenistan. Gradually that interest will fade: Berdimuhammedov is hardly likely to make the extraordinary utterances or take the bizarre decisions that characterised his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, known as Turkmenbashi – he of the prohibition on gold fillings, for example, and the ban on ballet, all of which drew adverse media attention to himself and to the country. But for the time being, since he has been officially confirmed in post, the new president will hold many important meetings with the range of foreign delegations and organisations which have come to the country to congratulate him on his victory at the polls.
Obviously, alongside the congratulations, these meetings will be an opportunity to raise some fairly serious questions, not only for Turkmenistan’s future but for the region as a whole. Although Berdimuhammedov has already dotted several press reports with his intentions of being loyal to Niyazov’s policies, it is likely that his strategy is still only in the making.
“Loyalty to the Party line” is a tired old cliche from Soviet times, repeated like a charm by Andropov after Brezhnev, Chernenko after Andropov, and Gorbachev after Chernenko. Politicians swear they’ll be “loyal to the Party line”, the way magicians say ‘abracadabra’ before doing a trick. The spell’s always the same, but the tricks turn out to be different each time. Never more so than now, because the promises made by this president in his election campaign sounded more like a reversal of Turkmenbashi’s policy, than a continuation of it. Berdimuhammedov promised to extend courses in secondary and higher education institutes, whereas Niyazov reduced them. He promised to reinstate the pensions scheme and social welfare benefits that the previous regime abolished. He also promised universal access to the Internet, whereas Niyazov had shut down all Internet cafes and Internet providers.
There is no way these and other promises made by Berdimuhammedov could be called a continuation of Niyazov’s line. At the same time it is too early to say how and to what extent he will keep them – or if he plans to keep them at all. Be that as it may, it was these promises that won over a considerable section of the electorate. With the exception of the Internet perhaps (because most people think computers are a Brave New World, let alone surf the web) Berdimuhammedov’s other plans were welcomed by very many people.
For the time being, the new president has decreed measures to “improve Turkmenistan’s education system”, which will extend secondary education from nine to ten years, and higher education from two to five or six years. However, the truncated courses introduced by the previous head of government are just the visible part of an iceberg of problems looming in this watery deep. There is the deficit of school books and coursework; the dearth of specialists; the lack of school buildings; corruption in the education system, and much, much more.
Equally pressing problems threaten other aspects of Turkmenistan as a society and as a state. It is unlikely that the president will take far-reaching, or even coherent, decisions in his early days. Niyazov left too many problems behind him for that. Figuratively speaking, the country is chronically ill and the fact that a new doctor has come to examine it (even one with a diploma) does not mean that tomorrow it will be well. Recovery will be prolonged and painful, and there is a long way to go before treatment can start: for the moment, we need an accurate diagnosis of what is wrong. Probably someone knows what that diagnosis must be, but for ordinary people it is still a ‘medical secret’ – although of course it could include something like ‘oxygen deficiency’.
Oxygen deficiency was given as the cause of Niyazov’s death. The priest sets the tone for the parish, as they say. People need some basic freedoms, if only in the sphere of private enterprise and farming. If they had those, then many of them who are currently without work can make a living for themselves. Many qualified Russian specialists who lost their jobs because they couldn’t speak Turkmen well enough will find the scope to apply their know-how and skills. No one expects anything very much from the country’s government. No one is looking to dismantle Niyazov’s personality cult or hoping for a nationwide discussion of his crimes. Quite the opposite. Many would prefer a softening of the regime, without any political or social bombshells. In fact, even some of the opposition now say that the best thing for the country would be a gradual transition from harsh dictatorship to a more responsive form of government. No one, however, wants to preserve the way they lived under Niyazov.
LETTER FROM DOWN THERE
It will soon be 40 days since I got here, and the mighty reckoning’s due any day now. But for the time being I am sitting in the local investigation cell. I’ve a lot of free time. I tried to start writing the sequel to my book Rukhnama, but here, would you believe it, no one is interested (although that’s strange, because in our little paradise, parts one and two were bestsellers). So I have decided to confine myself to writing a letter to you.
Listen, when you tell them you are going to introduce a ten-year secondary education, free Internet, a multi-party system, and other vile things of that nature, don’t forget to say that it’s all a continuation of my policies. Maybe it’ll get me remission here in court. I helped you after all. I kept you in post as health minister even though your doctors had forgotten how to give injections, let alone how to make patients well. How many of my beloved people did they bury? What do I mean beloved people? – they buried Me – the national treasure. Aagh …
So, you owe me one. Go and tell everyone that I was a good man and a democrat at heart. Get me out of the clink. I want to go to heaven.
Your lifelong beloved and almost eternally great Turkmenbashi
On Remand Cell No 666
Farid Tukhbatullin is a Turkmen satirist currently living in Vienna.
Translated by Marjorie Farquharson