Dark shadows in Turkmenistan's "eternal sunshine"
Date 2006/11/27 20:17:00 | Topic: News
|I spent only 18 hours in the "Land of Eternal Sunshine," but it almost blinded me. |
"Turkmenistan has about 260 days of sunshine every year," our tour guide beamed, as German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier's motorcade sped from the airport to the government quarter in Ashgabat, the capital.
Accompanying Steinmeier on a trip through Central Asia, I caught a rare glimpse into a secretive country that human rights groups assail as one of the world's most repressive states.
On the short drive to President Saparmurat Niyazov's palace, the German press corps is subjected to a barrage of information.
Niyazov calls himself "Turkmenbashi" (Father of the Turkmens) and he appears as a golden statue atop the Arch of Neutrality, a 95-metre-tall (310-feet-tall) construction in the city centre.
The statue rotates with the sun "So our president looks at each part of his country once every day," the guide says.
His nearby palace, a neoclassical marble complex, sports elaborate plaques with the president's name in the glass doors.
It is surrounded by equally imposing buildings housing government agencies and, everywhere you look, Niyazov's portrait.
"Ashgabat means 'City of Love' and it is also nicknamed 'Marble City'," the guide informs us, pointing to shiny white new marble-and-glass buildings lining an avenue dotted with water fountains and expanses of grass in a desert nation.
"Luxurious apartments for the citizens to buy," the guide says, although the simply-clad men and women that we can see tending the grass verges don't look like they live in condominiums.
In fact, poverty is widespread in Turkmenistan and a closer look at some of the less grand edifices in Ashgabat reveals them to be decrepit Soviet-era buildings with shiny new facades.
Steinmeier was travelling through Central Asia ahead of Germany's presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2007, when Berlin hopes to forge a common policy on a region rich in energy resources.
We wait for three hours in a palace lobby as Steinmeier and the president meet. Time for some reading.
Niyazov has run the country since 1985, when it was still a Soviet republic. January has been renamed "Turkmenbashi". So were a meteorite, the main brand of the country's sweet melons, and a Caspian Sea port. And the airport, of course.
If one of his subjects wishes to acquire a driver's licence, he or she will have to prove knowledge of Niyazov's main book "Rukhnama" ("Book of the Spirit"). It's a collection of moral advice and history and a bestseller in Ashgabat.
The ubiquity of Niyazov's image makes him look oddly familiar in the flesh. He appears in a short-sleeved shirt, no jacket, diamonds on his tie pin and wristwatch.
Electronic maps of the world and Turkmenistan blink in his office indicating natural gas deposits, the main source of hard currency for the nation of 5 million.
When Niyazov addresses an aide, the aide will jump to attention. That's where the bright surface begins to crack and reveal a dark layer beneath.
"We urge you not to get in contact with local people. It could be perilous to them," a German official warns us.
Human Rights Watch called Turkmenistan "one of the most repressive and sealed-off countries in the world" in a letter to Steinmeier.
It asked him to intervene on behalf of its victims, including local journalist Ogulsapar Muradova who died this year in a Turkmen jail with a reported head wound.
Ten men in dark suits (they almost dress to say 'Yes, we are intelligence agents') follow me and my journalist colleagues everywhere during our visit.
Our bus driver will not start the engine before they are on board. They do not mutter a single word to us, but they listen. Our guide, though fluent in German, gave her entire presentation in English, apparently easier to understand for our minders.
She praises a new puppet theatre for children, an amusement park with a large Ferris wheel, and an "Olympic Aquatic Complex". "Maybe Ashgabat will host the Olympics some day," she smiled.
It starts to feel oppressive. Eternal sunshine casts a very dark shadow.
By Markus Krah
November 27, 2006