An interview with Farid Tukhbatulin
Following immense international pressure, Turkmen satirist Farid TUKHBATULIN was granted amnesty from three years in prison in 2003. His work on the environment brought him head-to-head with President Saparmyrat Niyazov and he felt he had no future in his own country.
From his new home in western Europe, he follows events in Turkmenistan closely and publishes a human rights bulletin online. He plans to launch Central Asia’s first satirical website this year.
Marjorie Farquharson: In Soviet times there was an official magazine, Krokodil. But even then, Turkmenistan had its own outlet for satire. And what about your website?
Farid Tukhbatullin: The level of Tokmak (‘the gavel’) was about the same as Krokodil. But you need to remember the context: Turkmenistan’s population was around four million, which was tiny compared with the USSR as a whole. If Tokmak criticised anyone, even anonymously, readers immediately knew who was meant. Officials feared Tokmak more than a visit from government inspectors, who could be bribed. When word was out, it could not be taken back. It was published in the Turkmen language in the capital, Ashgabat, and sold only in Turkmenistan, though copies were archived in Moscow. Every Soviet republic had its own satirical magazine. The important thing was not the content so much as the mentality of its readers.
I wrote satirical pieces that could not be published. Friends said they liked them and now my son and I are putting together some political cartoons, named ‘Bashania’, in honour of their main inspiration, the dictator Turkmenbashi. I want to write a satire about people who are hell-bent on entering politics when they know full well they will end in prison. Over the last year not one minister has resigned; they have all been thrown in jail. But nature abhors a vacuum, and new people immediately take their place. I don’t imagine for a moment that my satirical website will transform Turkmenistan, but if it gives readers the chance to laugh at people and situations, that is no bad thing.
I hope to involve people of my country. I think satire is a way of reaching a wider audience and telling them about the dreadful things that are happening. It is one thing to talk to a small circle of people who think the way you do. But here in western Europe I realise people know nothing about Turkmenistan and don’t even know where it is. Kemine, who died in 1824, spent most of his life writing poetry that ridiculed the clergy and the well-to-do. Most of his verses were passed on orally. They are very pungent, and extremely witty. The early satirists were from nomadic groups – Makhtumkulya, a lyrical poet, was born in Iran. When they were writing, Turkmenistan had no single government power base, and this gave them some protection. As far as I know, they were not persecuted for things they wrote. Books by Kemine and Mukhtumkulya are now being withdrawn from libraries in Turkmenistan. Mukhtumkulya’s poems are about power–crazed people – about Niyazov himself.
In one sense the target of satire is the same throughout the ages, but in another, it has changed. Now it is not only local targets but international ones, like the OSCE, that deserve to be satirised. The OSCE says it has Turkmenistan high on its human rights agenda, but it is actually supporting Niyazov. The current OSCE ambassador in Ashgabat has never met non-governmental groups, whereas the previous one had an open-door policy. This one is afraid of antagonising Niyazov.
Marjorie Farquharson: Larissa Bogoraz, the Moscow human rights veteran who recently died, said that in a repressive state the vital thing is to live as though you are free inside. Do you think satire helps you do this?
Farid Tukhbatullin: I completely agree with her about inner freedom, but it is not always possible, when even laughter is dangerous. In Turkmenistan, at the very least it can lead to threats and inquiries from the KGB, or to being beaten up. At weddings people must include a hymn to Niyazov along with the toasts and dancing. At one wedding three guests got a bit tipsy and changed the words. One of them is now an invalid. One should maintain a sense of the ridiculous, but only within a narrow circle of people you trust. Otherwise you risk losing everything you have. Most people fear harm to the ones they love more than violence to themselves. That is what keeps Niyazov in power.
The fear of denunciation is an effective form of self-censorship. How does official censorship work? When Mikhail Gorbachev was General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and officially abolished censorship, it continued in Turkmenistan. Even though it was the government that produced all the Uzbek language and Turkmen language press in the republic, all the newspapers still had to go through the censor.
In 1990 I was given a grant to print a small handbook explaining people’s rights, with examples from real life. The handbook was not samizdat [‘selfpublished’]. It circulated openly with my name and address on it, and was available everywhere, free of charge. But I was called in to the authorities, who wanted to know why the censor’s signature wasn’t on it. The censor was active until the late 1990s. Now he’d be redundant. Nowadays, self-censorship is more powerful than censorship. In the memoirs of one of the men convicted of the assassination attempt on Niyazov in 2002, every second sentence starts ‘we terrorist filth did this… we terrorist scum did that… while the great Turkmenbashi …’. This is not self-censorship as such, because the book was probably written for him.
Not one official newspaper refers simply to President Saparmyrat Niyazov. He is always the ‘great’ Turkmenbashi, or our ‘beloved’ leader. If an official is sacked, the press automatically describes him as a dirty dog responsible for financial corruption. This is not censorship so much as a distortion of the genre. Niyazov rose to power when Gorbachev started to overhaul his party in 1985. One thing in his favour is that he is an orphan. He’s outside the clan system, and Gorbachev hoped this meant he wouldn’t fill the government with his own relatives. And so it is – even his harshest critics do not accuse him of nepotism. In the early days of his rule, he balanced cabinet appointments between different clans the way Tito did in Yugoslavia, and, until recently, he maintained some ethnic balance among the people he arrested. He does not want to build up any particular ethnic group in case it becomes strong enough to depose him. You were imprisoned for monitoring the ecological situation in the town where you lived. Do events in the wider region have much impact on Turkmenistan? The foreign minister was at the UN in 1997 and quickly realised that his chances of lobbying for Turkmenistan would improve if its human rights record were better. Niyazov said ‘tell them we are abolishing the death penalty’. He did, and a few days later a presidential decree was passed, abolishing it. So the international community can influence Turkmenistan to some extent.
When I worked on the environment in the regional town council, I was sacked because the issue was such a hot potato. Some colleagues and I set up a voluntary group to work on the same issues. Our possibilities were much more limited, but we ran exhibitions for school children, taught them about ecology, and translated material into Russian, Uzbek and Turkmen. We read papers at conferences abroad. Absolutely no official information was to be had, but we decided if we monitored cemeteries and counted the number of children’s graves dug each year, we could get an indication of infant mortality in a particular area. We worked with several groups on what was once the northern shore of the sea, and formed a coalition with them that continues to this day as an intergovernmental body with funding from abroad.
Turkmenistan is a closed country. Very little information gets in or out. On the other hand, the number of satellite dishes is growing. There are four main companies, and the most popular one is Russian, because older people still understand the language. Younger people can cope with CNN or Deutsche Welle. People know about the revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, and the events in Kyrgyzstan, but the official press has not breathed a word about them. After the Kyrgyz revolution, I heard that people convicted of the assassination attempt on Niyazov were transferred to one prison. The order went out to pick up all the would-be assassins’ relatives and ever-widening circles of people connected with them. I seemed to fall into the category of people ‘not to be trusted’. If I had talked about other people I worked with, who knows if the circle would have extended to them. Officials who fall foul of the law are exiled to remote cotton-growing areas in the centre of the country, to keep recalcitrant officials where they cannot escape. Previously, some officials exiled to border regions fled to Uzbekistan or across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan.
A number of ‘prestige’ projects are under way, the biggest being the construction of a Golden Lake in the centre of the Karakum desert – something that makes neither ecological nor economic sense and is expected to cost six trillion dollars. Turkmenistan’s irrigation system is decrepit and seeps huge quantities of water each year. It would make more sense to repair it, but that would be inconspicuous and boring – much better to create a sea in the desert. Most money for prestige projects feeds into Ashgabat; the countryside gets very little. Niyazov was born in a village called Kipchak, outside Ashgabat. Recently a French firm helped build Central Asia’s biggest mosque there. Its walls are painted with quotations from the Koran, and of course from Niyazov’s own book of wisdom, the Rukhnama, which means ‘Book of the Spirit’. For any true Muslim this juxtaposition is blasphemy. Can you tell us about the Rukhnama? It’s a book of bogus history, dotted with Niyazov’s own aphorisms. According to the Rukhnama, Turkmen founded several hundred states, including India. They also invented the wheel and the horse-drawn carriage. Turkmenistan is a great nation, with the greatest leader. School children learn parts of it by heart, and a day is set aside for factory workers to study it. Saturday has now been re-named ‘Rukhnum’ – the day for studying the Rukhnama. Imams must include extracts in their prayers.
I’m told that an unusually large number of Turkmen now attend the Russian Orthodox church, although you would expect them to be Muslim. They are trying to escape the Rukhnama. Others hold prayer meetings in each other’s homes. The government actively suppresses Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, and Shiite Muslims, none of which can get official registration. The names of the months have been renamed, so that what was 3 January is now 3 Turkmenbashi. February is now Baidak, which means ‘flag’. Niyazov’s birthday is a national holiday. The only weekday to keep its name is Friday, the Muslim holy day. I remember the investigator on my case had a real struggle remembering all the dates. He was a Russian but had to write the case notes in Turkmen. He somehow got by, but the dates almost broke him. That’s the way things are going in the country.
There is a Turkmen saying: ‘I asked for his hat but they gave me his head’, and those extremes are being taken with the language. Numbers have stayed the same so far – but no one is holding their breath. In one town, there is Saparmyrat Niyazov Street and Turkmenbashi Street. There is a Saparmyrat Niyazov village and a Turkmenbashi village in the district where I live. Collective farms are named after him. There is a plan to replace street names in Ashgabat with numbers, like in New York, leaving only five streets with names, one named after him, one after his father, one after the independence of Turkmenistan. Every built-up area must have a Turkmenbashi statue in its central square. In Dashoguz we woke up one morning to find the bust had lost its nose – someone must have bashed it off. For several days the head was covered until a new nose could be made and attached. A policeman has stood guard over it ever since. A similar thing happened in Ashgabat. Someone splashed paint on Niyazov’s portrait, and since then his portraits are hung out of arms’ reach. The grandest project is a 16-metre high statue of Niyazov standing with his arms wide open in Ashgabat. It is covered in gold leaf and rotates each day to face the sun. Niyazov’s picture is on every bank note, as is his signature since the last two chairmen of the National Bank were sacked and put in prison. He has forbidden beards, and told people not to put gold crowns on their teeth.
Some foreign journalists focus only on these oddities, which gives the impression that Niyazov is an eccentric but essentially harmless man. They don’t report the arrests and imprisonments because they are so routine that journalists find them boring. A man who used to work very closely with Niyazov warned me that he always tries to mislead people. If he looks ill, he may hope to offset Western pressure because governments will think they can wait until he dies. He’s only 65. I think he will be with us for a long time.
Farid Tukhbatullin was interviewed by Marjorie Farquharson.
This is an edited version of the interview ,INDEX ON CENSORSHIP 3 /2006