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How is President Affecting Turkmenistan? - 2002-04-02

The government of one of the most tightly controlled nations on earth is beginning to develop some cracks. Opposition is building to the autocratic rule of President Saparmurat Niyazov, who has embarked on a wide-ranging purge to shore up his government.

Visitors to Ashkhabad, capital of Turkmenistan, cannot escape the image of its longtime ruler, President Saparmurat Niazov.

His portrait greets them at the airport and adorns buildings in almost every block in the city. In the center stands a soaring tower with a statue of the president on top, rotating with the sun. Just inside the Human-Rights Building is a huge bust of once again - the president.

But image is not everything, said Paul Joyal, editor-in-chief of the Daily Report on Russia and the Former Soviet Republics. Far from it.

"There is great turmoil going on in Turkmenistan right now, and many believe that the government is near to collapse. There have been a series of removals, people being fired, defections, and threats by outside forces in Moscow poised to move into the country if necessary," Mr. Joyal said.

In recent months, several high-level officials have defected and fled abroad, notably to Moscow and Scandinavia. In exile, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikmuradov said the pressure will increase until Mr. Niyazov is gone.

There is no apparent opposition in Turkmenistan, but the president is taking no chances. He is conducting a massive purge of his government, axing most of the leadership of the state security service and forcing Soviet-style public confessions.

Mr. Joyal said the president has learned his lesson well from his years as a Communist boss. "It was a common practice during the old Soviet period where you had a very strong cult of personality, which Niyazov has in Turkmenistan, to change personnel periodically in order to keep any potential opposition to his total rule off balance. Clearly, these purges are directed at protecting his longevity," he said.

The president has made promises he cannot keep to the Turkmen people, said Russell Zanka, professor of anthropology at Northeastern Illinois University. He prophesied a vast gas and oil bonanza that has not occurred. Yet he has spent money as if it had, building a row of 25 luxury hotels that have no guests on the edge of the desert outside the capital.

"Literally, overnight all these fantastic hotels and monuments were going up in the capital of Ashkhabad. But of course that was all tempered by the fact that while all the big hotels had beautiful, luxurious swimming pools, the taps in most people's apartment houses were [only] dripping. Water was not even available for many hours of the day," Mr. Zanka said.

Professor Zanka said one reason there is little oil and gas development is President Niyazov, foreign investors have given up dealing with the secretive ruler and his cronies.

ExxonMobil is the latest foreign firm to bail out, taking with it a potential $10 billion investment.

Professor Zanka cited the troubles a Turkish company had while building a new Ashkabad airport. "They just thought that they were living in some sort of twilight zone. They felt the Turkmen were not very open or truthful with them. The Turkmen, or at least the government of Niyazov, has had a very big problem in terms of cooperation. It is very much a Soviet-style kind of regime, but with some of the worst elements of the old Soviet system," Mr. Zanka said.

The Turkmen opposition said the troubles will continue until the Soviet-style regime is gone, and the presidential statue stops rotating in the center of Ashkabad.