The Ashgabat Gazette Issue 49

Above, Turkmenbashi contemplates the bust of Turkmenbashi.

--Wednesday, 17 February 99--
When plastic or paper plates simply could not be found, Eleonara suggested that we should rent glass plates at 1,000 manats each for the party. The staff found the company and it looks like a go.

Went to the Embassy to get a notarized photocopy of my passport between 2 and 4 PM. I asked about the police at Tolkushka) and was told that intensification of inspections were periodic [read, "Not to worry!"] so there was nothing to be done about it. He went on to say that he "could never advise someone to refuse to obey a police officers instructions to go to a station." He seemed to make a point about not advising one to go with them either. What to do?

At three I went with Volusia to have my latest Teke carpet certified. Once more I stood in line and paid my fee for the slightest examination of the carpet. I would complain but it is the most efficient part of the whole ridiculous carpet export system. The office is a bizarre environment. Two bare bulbs are suspended at the end of cords hanging from the ceiling, the only other light being from the one barred window. The fee of 31,500 per sq. meter is posted on the wall. The fire alarm system is on the other wall. You wait patiently and receive disinterested service. And of course, you pay the fee.

Several expats have been planning a trip to Bukhara for this week end. Then some extremists exploded a small number (five to seven, no one seems sure) of bombs in Tashkent in an effort to kill the President of Uzbekistan. It might ruin their whole weekend.

I went to a "going away" party at the Nisa Truva tonight with my ARCA Rusian trainers. I got Grant to set up Larry for a small joke. Since Larry was frequently late for class (there was a sign on the wall telling everyone not to be late), Grant would frequently announce, as Larry arrived, "Larry apasdiviet" = "Larry late". So, I got Grant to ask Larry what his last name was. Larry said, "Hoffreiter." And I said, loudly, "Hoffreiter? I thought your last name was Apasdiviet!" It got a good laugh.

Larry told us how strange he found trying to do things here. He said that he went to the bank to get money on the first working day of the New Year and everyone was there. He tried to get some money but they told him that the first working day of the New Year was a holiday so he would have to come back the next day to get his money. Go figure.

--Thursday, 18 February 99--
Ed and I are invited to an office lunch at 1 PM. We are celebrating the President's birthday tomorrow and Flag Day as well. I later found out that it is also Police Day.

It is a tradition here to have celebratory parties at lunch time, the day before a holiday. We were invited to the budget office and had a delightful meal with many toasts -- twenty toasts to be exact. Everyone there was asked to make a toast and everyone did. About the only option you have is when you make your toast so I made mine early.

I said, "I arrived in late September and I leave in late February. In the five months I have been here I have been treated to Turkmen food, Turkmen hospitality, Turkmen kindness and Turkmen curiosity. I have traveled in many countries and many people have been kind to me but I can state flatly that no where -- not even in Ireland -- have I been as well treated as I have been here in Turkmenistan. So I raise a glass of wine to you individually and to the Turkmen people as I wish you health, long life and as much happiness as you can stand."

Ashgabat seems to be the land of the motorcycle sidecar. There is an astonishing number of them here. When you consider the relatively small population (about 500,000), the ratio of sidecars to the population is huge. I have never had a ride in a sidecar and probably would enjoy one.

--Friday, 19 February 99-- $1 = 14,500 manat

The Cult of Personality: A Reprise
Even after five months in Turkmenistan I still find the cult of personality hard to swallow. Some Westerners point out that the Turkmen people have not had a state for over 800 years and that, in this sense, the cult is devoted to nation building. I think there is something here but how much?

A while back, I received a newsletter for an American group that works here. Among many other tidbits it reports:

"CELESTIAL PRESIDENT: This summer a meteorite landed in northern Turkmenistan near the Uzbek border. Turkmen astrophysicists have petitioned to name the object for Turkmenistan's President Niyazov, otherwise affectionately known as Turkmenbashi. The request to name the object for a head of state is thought to be a first in the international scientific community, although some believe that celestial bodies were named after pharaohs in ancient Egypt."

I asked various people when the Turkmenbashi cult started and I was told that it was shortly after independence. Pictures sprouted everywhere on government buildings and businesses, which is to say, EVERYWHERE since the private sector here is small. A Russian news reporter interviewed Turkmenbashi at the time and asked if he wasn't embarrassed to have his picture everywhere. He said, "Why should I object if the people want it?"

The November 9, 1998 issue of The Central Asian Post ran an article titled "Perpetual President is named in Turkmenistan." The lead paragraph stated "A day or two ago, Turkmenistan pompously celebrated its 7th anniversary of independence. The government's high tribunal named head of state Saparmurat Niyazov, 'Perpetual President'."

The article reported that "In 1990 he was elected President by 98.3% of the votes. In connection with the adoption of the new Constitution in June of 1992, the election was repeated and 99.5% voted in his favor. In January of 1994, the National Referendum prolonged his administration up to the year 2002. A total of 99.9% of electors supported this suggestion. All these elections were conducted without any alternative."

The article reported that at the same time Turkmenbashi was awarded the Hero Medal, the country's highest honor, which he had received only twice before. Doubtlessly because of his modesty.

It was in the paper today that the recently redesigned 10,000 manat note has be re-redesigned to add three medals to the chest of Turkmenbashi. And on it goes.

Last Minute Invites
I had Delara call Asat during the day and invite him and his friend Maxat to Ed's and my party. He wasn't there but she left a message. Tonight Asat called me and we had a warm reunion. He came over and we talked and talked. We reviewed the words that I had taught him and he accurately remembered most of them without any hints. I told him that I had studied a little Russian and he help me with some more Russian words. It was very pleasant to see him again. He is definitely one of the sweetest people I have ever met in my life. He has a natural friendliness and charm that transcends social and cultural barriers. I think that psychologically, he sees a father in me. He very much misses his father.

A Virtual Tour of Turkmenistan
© 1998-99 Joe Kelley