FAMILIES, HOMES AND EVERYDAY LIFE IN TURKMENISTAN

FAMILIES IN TURKMENISTAN

Extended families have traditionally been the most basic social unit among Turkmen. The traditional family unit is comprised of a man, his wife or wives, his sons with their families, and unmarried children. The father is the formal head of the household yet wives and elder sons can exert considerable informal influence. When sons move out, when they are between 30 and 40 years old, they tend to live near their fathers and help with family economic activities. Soviet housing shortages and internal passports tended to strengthen traditional extended family bonds rather than weaken them.

Kinship terms are specific and complex. They often define an individual’s status within a tribe or clan and whether he or she is related along patrilineal or matrilineal lines. Rules about inheritance are defined as much by Turkmen custom as Islamic law. Sons have traditionally received their share of inheritance when the they marry with the youngest son, who takes care of his parents, receiving the remainder when his parents die.

The marriage celebration, together with other life-cycle events, possesses great importance in Turkmenistan. Prior to Soviet rule, the extended family was the basic and most important social and economic unit among the Turkmen. Grouped according to clan, small bands of Turkmen families lived as nomads in their traditional regions and consolidated only in time of war or celebration. In most cases, the families were entirely self-sufficient, subsisting on their livestock and at times on modest agricultural production. For some groups, raiding sedentary populations, especially the Iranians to the south, was an important economic activity. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Although Soviet power brought about fundamental changes in the Turkmen family structure, many traditional aspects remain. Families continue to be close-knit and often raise more than five children. Although no longer nomadic, families in rural areas still are grouped according to clan or tribe, and it is the rule rather than the exception for the inhabitants of a village to be of one lineage. Here, also, it is common for sons to remain with their parents after marriage and to live in an extended one-story clay structure with a courtyard and an agricultural plot. In both rural and urban areas, respect for elders is great. Whereas homes for the elderly do exist in Turkmenistan, Turkmen are conspicuously absent from them; it is almost unheard of for a Turkmen to commit his or her parent to such an institution because grandparents are considered integral family members and sources of wisdom and spirituality.

Women and Gender Roles in Turkmenistan

Turkmen have traditionally believed that the main mission of a woman is to be a wife, mother, and continuer of family. Men traditionally took care of tending the animal and doing heavy agricultural work and managed the machines on fields.

The role of women in Turkmen society has never conformed to Western stereotypes about "Muslim women." Although a division of labor has existed and women usually were not visible actors in political affairs outside the home, Turkmen women never wore the veil or practiced strict seclusion. They generally possessed a host of highly specialized skills and crafts, especially those connected with the household and its maintenance. During the Soviet period, women assumed responsibility for the observance of some Muslim rites to protect their husbands' careers. Many women entered the work force out of economic necessity, a factor that disrupted some traditional family practices and increased the incidence of divorce. At the same time, educated urban women entered professional services and careers. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

A girl has traditionally been regarded as the property of her father until she was married. The money she earned from making carpets went to her father. After her marriage she was regarded as the property of her husband and the money she earned from making carpets went to him.

Women have traditionally worn headscarves but not veils but customarily covered their mouths with their head clothes whenever in the present of no-related makes, sometimes even their own in-laws. Even though Turkmen converted to Islam in the 11th century women did no begin wearing the veils until they became settled in the 19th century.

Segregation of women have traditionally been practices, When Turkmen were nomads, women occupied a less honored position in the yurt. Today women often are relegated to a separate part of the house when male household members are entertaining guest.

Women and Carpet Making in Turkmenistan

Carpets have traditionally been made in villages by family groups of women who worked in their homes with primitive looms that lie on the floor and just three tools: scissors, a comb and a knife with a hooked blade. Most of the designs are made from memory and have been passed down to each generation from mother to daughter. Men traditionally bought the finest wool they could afford for the women to card and spin and took the wool to the markets where dyers specialized in specific colors like red and indigo.

Describing a Turkmen women at work on their looms, Sabrina and Roland Michaud wrote in National Geographic, “A weaver...knots a strand of wool around a thread of warp, cutting the ends with the sickle-shaped knife. After each row she tamps the line with a heavy comb. Finally, using shears, she clips several inches of shaggy tuft to an even height. The weavers work with every ounce of their energy, burying their joys and sorrows alike in their carpets, forgetting even the baby in its hammock hung above the loom.” They “wield great scissors with which they even the strands of wool...They cut themselves off from their world; they accept their lot with calmness and serenity.” [Source: Sabrina and Roland Michaud, National Geographic, November 1973]

Turkmen Women’s Clothes

Many Turkmen women still wear the traditional long satiny Turkmen dress. Turkmen women have traditionally worn loose, heavy, brilliantly-colored, ankle-length silk or velvet caftans with baggy trousers underneath with contrasting colors and decorated bands. The caftan has a stand up collar and a center opening covered by a decorated braid or embroidery. The sleeves are full and gathered at the wrists. Popular colors include red and maroon. Caftans for special occasions are elaborate and decorated, Sometimes they are worn with a knee-length coat studded with metal discs.

Turkmen women wear different depending on their age. For girls, clothing has traditionally been considered part of their education, teaching them about family values and motherhood. A teenage girl wears a traditional dressing gown made from dark fabric richly embroidered with bright spring flowers that convey beauty, health and fertility. [Source: advantour.com <=>]

The dressing gown of a middle age woman is yellow in color — the color of autumn and a symbol of the sun at its zenith, warming the land and the entire woman's family — her parents and children — with its rays. This dressing gown is embroidered with " oak leaves " symbolizing strength and longevity.

The third kind of a dressing gown is worn by a woman who has passed " Mohammed's age " (63). It is white and its embroidery brings to mind desert plants. As years go by more and more space is left without embroidery. This represents "the space of life " intended for new generations.

Women’s Issues in Turkmenistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “Women have equal rights under family law and property law and in the judicial system. The parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and Liberties is responsible for drafting human rights and gender legislation, integrating a new gender program into the education curriculum, and publishing regular bulletins on national and international gender laws. By law women enjoy full legal equality with men, including equal pay, access to loans, the ability to start and own a business, and access to government jobs. Nevertheless, women continued to experience discrimination due to cultural biases. Employers allegedly gave preference to men to avoid productivity losses due to pregnancy or child-care responsibilities. Women were underrepresented in the upper levels of government-owned economic enterprises and were concentrated in the health-care, education, and service professions. The government restricted women from working in some dangerous and environmentally unsafe jobs. The government did not acknowledge, address, or report on discrimination against women. No special government office promotes the legal rights of women, but the Women’s Union (a government-affiliated “NGO”) and the National Institute of Democracy and Human Rights worked on women’s legal rights. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]

“ Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, and penalties range from three to 10 years in prison. Rape of a victim under 14 years of age is punishable by 10 to 25 years in prison. A cultural bias against reporting or acknowledging rape made it difficult to determine the extent of the problem. The law prohibits domestic violence, including spousal abuse, through provisions in the criminal code that address intentional infliction of injury. Penalties range from fines to 15 years in prison, based on the extent of the injury, although enforcement of the law varied. \*\

“Anecdotal reports indicated domestic violence against women was common; most victims of domestic violence kept silent because they were unaware of their rights or afraid of increased violence from husbands and relatives. In 2012 the NGO Keik Okara opened, with a shelter for victims of domestic violence, supported by the OSCE. Keik Okara continued to operate a domestic violence hotline and provided free legal consultations and psychological assistance to victims of domestic violence. The NGO also organized awareness-raising seminars on domestic violence. One official women’s group in Ashgabat and several informal groups in other regions assisted victims of domestic violence. \*\

Being a Turkmenbashi Flower Girl

In Turkmenistan, every citizen is expected to be an adoring fan of the head of state, but only a select few get to actually be deployed as official admirers. A journalist from Radio Free Europe’s Turkmen Service who had the “honor” of being a flower girl during reign of Saparmurat Niyazov, former president of Turkmenistan, but paid a price — literally. [Source: Radio Free Europe, July 18, 2012 >>>]

Radio Free Europe reported: “The journalist, Akmaral (her name has been changed for security reasons), was in 7th grade when she was chosen to be an official admirer of Niyazov. “A woman came into our class one day in the middle of school,” Akmaral explains. “She pointed at 10 or so people — ‘you, you, you’ — and we had to follow her to the gymnasium.” >>>

“There, Akmaral and her classmates were lined up and assigned by a nameless state official to different groups who were to perform different acts of praise should the president ever visit. The children were assigned to sections that included dancers, singers, and Akmaral’s group — flower presenters. >>>

“Being selected meant many things, not all of them good. Beyond being essentially conscripted to be an adoring subject, the kids spent dozens (or more) hours in various rehearsals that usually took place during normal school hours. Akmaral says that while many parents fully support and are even honored by the selection of their children to such groups, her parents objected strongly to local officials -- ultimately in vain -- over all the class time missed and the financial cost to the families. >>>

“Akmaral attended a private school, so each hour of class missed for “adoration practice” was ostensibly an hour of her parents' tuition money down the drain. In addition, families bear the cost of the dresses and other costumes for the ceremonies in which their children participate. Akmaral says the costs were usually quite modest, but once she had to pay for a traditional hat that the authorities required the group to wear. The hat had to be ordered from the capital, Ashgabat -- for $150. "This is why so many people from my school were picked for these things," she says. "We went to private school, so the Culture Ministry thought we had money and could afford things like expensive hats." >>>

“The ceremonies themselves can be quite trying for the participants, both physically and mentally. Akmaral says the children often had to stand for hours on end — usually just waiting for Turkmenbashi to either enter or exit a building — without food or water...She says that the people picked for such honor groups are expected to be available for them until the end of primary school, and, once at university, students are often “encouraged” to come out to support the president at official gatherings.” >>>

Children Issues in Turkmenistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: In May 2013 “the government added a provision to the law describing the rights and responsibilities of parents in the upbringing of children. A 2013 law set forth the state’s youth policy. It defines youth as persons between the ages of 14 and 30 and enunciates 15 main goals. They included the creation of conditions for the full participation of young people in the social, economic, political, and cultural life of the state and society; the provision of conditions for the comprehensive education of youth; and the observance of the rights and freedoms of young people. The government took modest steps to address the welfare of children, including increased cooperation with UNICEF and other international organizations on programs designed to improve children’s health. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]

Birth Registration: According to the law, a child’s citizenship is derived from one’s parents. A child born to stateless persons possessing permanent resident status in the country is also a citizen. UNICEF reported in its 2014 State of the World’s Children Report that 96 percent of children had their births registered in 2012, the latest year for which data were available. \*\

Child Abuse: There were isolated reports of child abuse. During the year the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child asked the government to provide updated information about situation of the country’s children. The information was to include whether a national action plan for children had been adopted, where there were mechanisms for protecting children in vulnerable situations from discrimination, the implementation of measures prohibiting corporal punishment, children’s access to potable water and adequate sanitation, and what had been done to improve the quality of education for children. The government had not responded as of December 1. \*\

“Sexual Exploitation of Children: The legal age of consent is 16. The law forbids the production of pornographic materials or objects for distribution, as well as the advertisement or trade in text, movies or videos, graphics, or other objects of a pornographic nature, including those involving children. An Interpol report noted that the criminal code “enacts criminal liability for involvement of minors into prostitution.” International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.” \*\

“Child Labor: The minimum age for employment of children is 16, or 18 for work in heavy industries such as textiles, construction, metalworking, and chemicals. A 15-year-old, however, may work four to six hours per day, up to 24 hours per week, with parental and trade union permission, but such permission rarely was granted. The law prohibits children between the ages of 16 and 18 from working more than six hours per day, or 36 hours per week. The law also prohibits children from working overtime or between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and protects children from exploitation in the workplace. A presidential decree bans child labor in all sectors and states specifically that children may not participate in the cotton harvest. Resources, inspections, and remediation were reportedly adequate to enforce the prohibitions on child labor. Penalties for violations, including fines of up to 2,000 manat ($700) or suspension of an employer’s operations for up to three months were enforced and sufficient to deter violations. There were reports that some children picked cotton to earn extra money or in place of a parent, but there were no confirmed reports of forced child labor in the cotton industry...There were reports that in some rural communities, parents removed girls from school as young as age nine to work at home.

See Education

Children Superstitions in Turkmenistan

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “There was another grave, the Tomb of the Unmarried Woman—Gulnara said that “unmarried woman” could also be translated as “virgin.” Young women were praying here. Hundreds more had left behind requests to be granted. Small carved cradles indicated a woman’s wish to be blessed with babies. Gulnara said that the sheep bones, carefully piled, indicated a wish for children, too, since bones were used as toys by Turkmen children. A hairpin meant that a girl was desired, as did patches of colored cloth; a toy car indicated a wish for a boy.”[Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007]

“In Islam, you don’t usually appeal to a dead woman,” Gulnara said. “You’re supposed to ask Allah. But this is a powerful woman.” I pointed out that most of the appeals were for boys. She said, “Women who give birth to girls have another way of indicating that they want a boy. They will name the daughter Enough (Besteir) or Fed Up (Boyduk). These are common names. I know many.””

Women at some pilgrimage sites pray and tearing up pieces of clothing and dolls, in the hopes that the ritual with help them conceive a child. If a long-awaited firstborn child does not due in due course, a woman used to put on a dress with a small slit on the hem with decorative embroidery. The slit symbolized an "open" road for a baby. If people saw a woman in such a dress they wish ed her : "May she have a heir! "

Elderly People in Turkmenistan

In the early 2000s, Niyazov declared that old age does not begin until one reached the age of 85. Some saw the statement as an answer to those who wondered when Niyazov would retire.

In the late 1990s, Niyazov decreed that all citizens of Turkmenistan who reached the age of 62 would get a three-day paid holiday, bonus pay worth a month’s pay, said to be enough to pay for a sacrificial feast in which a white ram is slaughtered to honor the age in which the Prophet Mohammed died. The decree was made when Niyazov reached the age of 62.

See Pensions Under Government

Housing in Turkmenistan

Turkmen traditionally lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle and considered their summer camps their “homeland” not the settled houses they lived in during the winter. In the summer Turkmen lived in yurts and traveled with their flocks to seasonal pastures. Wheat has traditionally been grown in fields around the villages comprised of mud-brick homes. Few Turkmen are nomads anymore. Some still keep yurts outside their homes. Housing was heavily subsidized in the Soviet era and continued to be afterwards. In the early 2000, few people paid rents of more than $30 a month.

In 1989 the state owned more than 70 percent of urban housing and about 10 percent of rural housing. The remainder of urban housing was owned privately or by housing cooperatives. The average citizen had 11.2 square meters of housing space in urban areas, 10.5 square meters in rural areas. In 1989 some 31 percent of housing (urban and rural areas combined) had running water, 27 percent had central heating, and 20 percent had a sewer line. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996]

Some of Niyazov’s weird policies impacted on Turkmenistan’s housing situation. Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “About forty feet from the ruined mosque was another mound, on which there were hundreds of toy huts made of broken clay tiles. It looked like a miniature city. A squatting man in a smock and a woman with a blowing head scarf were building one as we watched. “People praying for houses,” Gulnara said. The cruelty of Turkmenbashi’s policies was obvious when you contemplated the tableau of toy huts, a visible plea for housing. Homeless people abounded in this fabulously wealthy country. Bashi fancied himself a city planner; he’d ordered that hundreds of houses be bulldozed, compounds flattened, and the neighborhoods of Ashgabat dispersed, so that he could build oversized white marble apartment blocks that now stood empty because they were, in their deluxe absurdity, unaffordable. He rarely compensated the owners of the houses he tore down; nor did he rehouse them. They now lived precariously, in temporary huts on the outskirts of town. [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007 ~]

Homes in Turkmenistan

Many people live in mud brick homes in villages and small towns. There are town and cities in remote parts of the country that beg the question: why is anyone living here?.

Traditional homes are comprised of domed buildings surrounded by mud walls. Each compound is home to a man, his wife or wives, his sons with their families, and unmarried children. A separate building houses guests. Courtyard gardens irrigated by canals that enters holes underneath the walls nourish melons plants, apricot and almond trees and other fruit and vegetables.

Wooden rail gates and iron padlocks and, in the old days, guards have traditionally provided security. Turkmen used to have a tradition of men raiding villages other than their own. Their object to steal silver jewelry. The guest houses often had the best furnishings and maybe the only glass windows in the compound.

Most towns have a mix of Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks, some in garish colors, and brick-and-dirt houses with sheet-metal roofs. In 1991 nearly all families had television sets, refrigerators, and sewing machines, and 84 percent had washing machines. Only 26 percent owned cars, however, and the quality of durable goods was quite low by Western standards. Kerosene lanterns supplied light. Carpets spread on the floor and sometimes hung on the walls.

Turkmen traditionally lived in yurts, which they called oy. They sometimes they had reed coverings. Turkmen kept using them after they became settled. Even today a yurt outside a modern home is a common site. They often serve as a summer residences or a room for guests. Some Turkmen called their yurts karauy (“black chamber”). This is a reference to the color they turn after they become blackened with smoke.

Everyday Life in Turkmenistan

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “I spent the rest of my time in Ashgabat doing what Turkmen like doing most: sitting on a lovely carpet, eating my way down a spit of lamb kebab or through a mound of rice plov. Always there was hard bread, sometimes dumplings; usually there was tea, sometimes wine. Now and then, these meals were served in homes that stood in empty fields, like a stage set for a Beckett play—a house in a wasteland, everything around it bulldozed to make room for a prestige project or a gold statue. [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007 ~]

Because I was now being watched by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I had to be careful. But having Turkmenbashi as an enemy was also helpful, because when Western diplomats tried to explain my predicament to me they were often revealing about his quirks. “And many people don’t have jobs,” Merdan said. “More than sixty per cent of the population is unemployed.” “I’m surprised people aren’t angry.”

“Some are angry. But we have cheap things, too. Natural gas is free. Electricity is free.” Gasoline, Merdan told me, cost the equivalent of three cents a gallon; he could fill the tank of his car for fifty cents. “What do you think are the problems here?” I asked. “We have problems, but we can’t address problems, because there are no problems,” Merdan said, and smiled at me, a smile that said, Please, no more questions.

Living Standards in Turkmenistan

Under the conditions of independence in the early 1990s, the standard of living in Turkmenistan did not drop as dramatically as it did in other former Soviet republics. Thus, the relatively small population of the nation of Turkmenistan did not require extensive state investment for the basic requirements of survival as the nation attempted the transition to a market economy. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Although living standards have not declined as sharply in Turkmenistan as in many other former Soviet republics, they have dropped in absolute terms for most citizens since 1991. Availability of food and consumer goods also has declined at the same time that prices have generally risen. The difference between living conditions and standards in the city and the village is immense. Aside from material differences such as the prevalence of paved streets, electricity, plumbing, and natural gas in the cities, there are also many disparities in terms of culture and way of life. Thanks to the rebirth of national culture, however, the village has assumed a more prominent role in society as a valuable repository of Turkmen language and traditional culture.

Wages and Prices in Turkmenistan

Most families in Turkmenistan derive the bulk of their income from state employment of some sort. As they were under the Soviet system, wage differences among various types of employment are relatively small. Industry, construction, transportation, and science have offered the highest wages; health, education, and services, the lowest. Since 1990 direct employment in government administration has offered relatively high wages. Agricultural workers, especially those on collective farms, earn very low salaries, and the standard of living in rural areas is far below that in Turkmen cities, contributing to a widening cultural difference between the two segments of the population.

In 1990 nearly half the population earned wages below the official poverty line, which was 100 rubles per month at that time. Only 3.4 percent of the population received more than 300 rubles per month in 1990. In the three years after the onset of inflation in 1991, real wages dropped by 47.6 percent, meaning a decline in the standard of living for most citizens (see Labor).

Prices of all commodities rose sharply in 1991 when the Soviet Union removed the pervasive state controls that had limited inflation in the 1980s. Retail prices rose by an average of 90 percent in 1991, and then they rose by more than 800 percent when the new national government freed most prices completely in 1992. The average rate for the first nine months of 1994 was 605 percent. As world market prices rise and currency fluctuations affect prices and purchasing power, consumer price increases continue to outstrip rises in per capita incomes. In 1989 the average worker spent about two-thirds of his or her salary on food, fuel, clothing, and durable goods, but that ratio increased sharply in the years that followed. As prices rose, the supply of almost all food and many consumer goods was curtailed. The introduction of the manat as the national currency in November 1993 likely worsened the already deteriorating consumer purchasing power. The prices of forty basic commodities immediately rose 900 percent, and wages were raised only 200 percent to compensate.

Life in the Land of Turkmenbashi

David Remnick wrote in The New Yorker, “Of the fifteen states of the former Soviet empire, Turkmenistan...is the one that has turned out to be a cruel blend of Kim Jong Il’s North Korea and L. Frank Baum’s Oz. Not long after the Soviet collapse, in 1991, Niyazov became President-for-life, dubbed himself Turkmenbashi—Leader of All the Turkmen—and commenced building the strangest, most tragicomic cult of personality on the Eurasian landmass. Doctors there now take an oath not to Hippocrates but to Turkmenbashi; the month of January is now called Turkmenbashi; and in the capital, Ashgabat, there is, atop the Arch of Neutrality, a two-hundred-and-fifty-foot gold statue of Turkmenbashi that, like George Hamilton, automatically rotates to face the sun. [Source: David Remnick, The New Yorker, May 1, 2006 \+\]

“It is extremely difficult to get a visa. Journalists can visit only rarely. But imagine a society in which the ubiquitous, inescapable leader’s image (on the currency, on billboards, on television screens night and day) is that of a saturnine frump who resembles Ernest Borgnine somewhere between “Marty” and “McHale’s Navy.” Niyazov is a leader of whims. He has banned opera, ballet, beards, long hair, makeup (for television anchors), and gold-capped teeth. He demands that drivers pass a “morality test.” At his command, the word for “April” became Gurbansoltan eje, the name of his late mother. Evidently, he prizes fruit: there is now a national holiday commemorating local melons. And, as if the shade of Orwell were not sufficiently present in Turkmenistan, Niyazov has established, despite an abysmal human-rights record, a Ministry of Fairness. \+\

“Rahim Esenov, a veteran of the Second World War, is unlucky enough to be a novelist and journalist under the reign of Turkmenbashi, and in February, 2004, he was placed under house arrest by the Turkmen security police. He was accused of smuggling eight hundred copies of his novel “The Crowned Wanderer” from Moscow to his apartment in Ashgabat. When the novel, which is set in the Mogul era, was first published, in 1997, Niyazov denounced Esenov for “historical errors.” After suffering a second heart attack, Esenov, who is seventy-nine, was taken to the hospital, but three days later he was removed for interrogation. The security police charged him with “inciting social, national, and religious hatred.” And Esenov had undoubtedly given further offense to the regime by sending periodic reports to the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty.\+\

“Niyazov, like Mao or Qaddafi, insists on being his people’s favorite writer. He is the putative author of the “Ruhnama,” a book that is meant to be a spiritual guide, a celebration of the Leader, and a newly contrived history of the Turkmen people. Niyazov has suggested that if one reads the “Ruhnama” one will surely go to Heaven. Other contemporary books, like Esenov’s, are generally considered rivals and are banned. For obvious reasons, Esenov was reluctant to speak directly about Niyazov, but about his own novel he said, “In any era, the writer reflects the feelings and protest of the people, and I’m a child of my people. In ‘Animal Farm,’ the animals are there as an allegory for the people.” \+\

Theroux asked his guides asked his guides about the gold statues of himself that Niyazov puts up: “Mamed made a face, shook his head, and became suddenly alert. It was said that hotel rooms and offices were bugged. Surely his car could be bugged, too? But Gulnara had an opinion. She was confident and bright, qualities that she shared with many of the Turkmen women I met. She said, “The statues. The slogans. The five-year plans. We have seen this before. Stalin—and others. This will pass away.” It was, it seemed to me, the right way to view the autocracy, for of course this domineering man would die, and likely sooner rather than later—he was seriously afflicted with heart disease, possibly caused by diabetes, and had undergone at least one bypass operation. In the meantime, Turkmen often expressed their disaffection through jokes. “Why is Turkmenbashi the richest man in Turkmenistan?” Answer: “Because he has five million sheep.” [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007]

Turkmenistan’s Las Vegas?

In 2011, Turkmenistan’s President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov promises that, one day soon, he will build a Las Vegas on the windswept shores of the Caspian Sea.Dmitry Solovyov of Reuters wrote: “Illuminated by distant gas flares, thousands of construction workers toil through the night to build the next stage of Avaza: a fantasy resort built on the reclusive Central Asian nation's fabulous energy riches. Seven colossal, marble-fronted hotels ordered by Berdymukhamedov line the coast. At least another 23 are planned in a project which some say could divert up to $5 billion from Turkmenistan's state coffers. [Source: Dmitry Solovyov, Reuters, June 15, 2011 *-*]

“Avaza is an alien world to the 70,000 residents of Turkmenbashi, an oil-refining port 20 minutes' drive away now bypassed by a motorway that shuttles curious visitors and officials from the region's airport. In Turkmenbashi, shoppers in the meat section of a local grocery store are offered bones from a plastic crate or sausages covered in flies. The air is thick with sulphur from the oil refinery. It's enough to make some residents long for Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan's first post-Soviet leader, who ruled with a bizarre personality cult and renamed the city to reflect his own self-awarded title: Turkmenbashi, or Leader of All Turkmens. Formerly known as Krasnovodsk, the city was a springboard for Russia's invasion of Central Asia in its 19th-century Great Game with the British Empire for influence in the region. *-*

“Official literature describes Avaza as "a synonym for our unprecedented reforms." The planned tourist zone will cover an area of 5,000 hectares and Berdymukhamedov has said: "In the third stage of the project, a Turkmen 'Las Vegas' will appear here, with numerous casinos and other entertainment centres." A fountain gushing from the Caspian will evoke images of Geneva's Jet d'Eau, while a 7-km (4-mile) canal filled with yachts is designed to bring to mind Venice or Amsterdam. A huge portrait of the president in parade uniform greets guests at the largest hotel in the complex, the Watanchy, or "Patriot." It was built by the Defense Ministry. Berdymukhamedov has ordered banks and other ministries to build their own hotels to match.” *-*

Life in the Land of Arkadag (The Protector)

Radio Free Europe reported: “Berdymukhammedov appears to be trying to match his predecessor in other areas of adulation, as well. He had the Council of Elders bestow the formal title of Arkadag (The Protector) upon him.” He “has also continued Niyazov's tradition of renaming streets, schools, and organizations after his relatives. A village school in Akhal Province, for example, has been named after the president's grandfather, Berdymukhammed Annaev. The three-story school towers over all other buildings in the village. And unlike many other rural schools in Turkmenistan, it is equipped with modern computers. And the police unit where the president's father, Myalikguly Berdymukhammedov, once served has been named after him. The elder Berdymukhammedov's office in that unit has been restored and turned into a museum. [Source: Farangis Najibullah, Radio Free Europe, February 13, 2012 ]

Dmitry Solovyov of Reuters wrote: “Foreign visitors, who pay up to $300 for a night at the Watanchy, must overcome bureaucratic hurdles to secure a visa and encounter hotel staff often baffled by words such as Internet and Wi-Fi or requests to send an email. Even at the Watanchy, restaurants serve a frugal choice of dishes smacking of Soviet-era canteens and usually close at 10 p.m., just like elsewhere in the country, where electricity is routinely turned off to rush out straggling guests. [Source: Dmitry Solovyov, Reuters, June 15, 2011 *-*]

“The expansion has also taken place at the expense of the private summer houses built along the shore in Soviet times. "We had a school-leaving party in a wooden two-storey house owned by the parents of a girl from my class," said a security guard at a local hotel, who declined to give his name. "Then it was bulldozed," he said, pointing to a garbage heap near the canal. "They got no compensation. Some people created a fuss and were offered allotments, deep into the desert." *-*

“While Avaza dazzles its visitors, little has changed for the ordinary citizens of Turkmenbashi, where clothes and linen dry on ropes slung between rows of two- and three-storey apartment blocks. The roads are dusty and potholed. In the main market, buyers were far outnumbered by sellers. Few locals would buy fresh mutton at $4 per kg and almost nobody approached fishmongers' stalls laden with live sturgeon offered at $11 per kg, chunks of smoked beluga at $35 per kg and silvery grey mullet at $2.50 per kg. *-*

“But Anna, who sells poached beluga caviar from under the table at $1,200 per kg, was smiling after several foreign delegates attending a gas conference in Avaza paid a visit. "They bought 50 to 100 grams of my caviar each to eat it back at their hotels," she said. She had just earned several times the average monthly wage of less than $250. Gas, electricity and water are still free of charge for most Turkmen households, the legacy of a gift once made by Niyazov. Avaza has given citizens its own gift, special discount room rates of $45 to $108 per night at local hotels. "Yes, we do go to Avaza," says Anna, the caviar seller. "But no, we do not visit spas or hotels. We mainly go to see Avaza's great fountains because we have no fountains in Turkmenbashi." *-*

"Under Niyazov, we lived in paradise but we didn't realize it," said Vlad, a 22-year-old resident who scrapes a living driving rare visitors around Turkmenbashi in his old Opel car. "In the good old days, I could fill my car for just a dollar. Now petrol prices have jumped sevenfold," he said. "Why has it all become so costly? I don't know. We are never told." *-*

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016


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