Niyazov's Cult of Personality Grips Turkmenistan In Turkmenistan, nearly six million people are still caught in the iron grip of an eccentric dictator who is no longer even alive. Saparmurat Niyazov died last December and was succeeded by his personal dentist. But like so many things in secretive Turkmenistan, little is known about how that happened.

Niyazov's Cult of Personality Grips Turkmenistan

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Passengers, please be sure to get up and move around the cabin during this next report because we are traveling to one of the most isolated countries on Earth. It's the central Asian state of Turkmenistan.

It's a huge country believed to have immense reserves of natural gas. But this former Soviet Republic is better known for the Soviet-style cult of personality built by its first president.

It's not easy to get a look around Turkmenistan but reporter Kristen Gillespie obtained a tourist visa and sent us her impressions.

KRISTEN GILLESPIE: In Turkmenistan nearly six million people are still caught in the iron grip of an eccentric dictator who is no longer even alive. His name? Saparmurat Niyazov, but he called himself Turkmenbashi, or father of the Turkmen. Niyazov died last December and was succeeded by his personal dentist, but like so many things in secretive Turkmenistan, little is known about how that happened.

On the streets of Turkmenistan's cities and towns, the most glaring feature is still the totalitarian cult of the dead president. In town squares all over the country you'll find golden statues of Niyazov standing, or sitting on a throne, chin cradled in hand as if deep in thought.

Niyazov fancied himself a writer and a poet. His defining work is a book called the Ruhnama, which means spiritual book. It's praised as the ultimate self-help guide on billboards, official buildings and even on the sides of houses in the middle of the desert. It's a rambling tract full of shallow historical analysis, cliches, parables, and some autobiography.

Study of the Ruhnama comprises a third of Turkmenistan's education system. And anyone entering the civil service is required to pass an exam based on the book's contents, contents that include stern advice; for example, to choose clean and decent clothes that suit you and...

Unidentified Man #1: In our times the Turkmen should take care of his eating and drinking to preserve his health and endurance. He should not eat greedily.

GILLESPIE: Just in case you didn't get the message, words from the Ruhnama also line the tops of buildings. Citizens of Ashgabat, we must make our city shine, is one example. And the streets of the capital are immaculate. An army of women cleans them around the clock, and smoking is banned in public.

(Soundbite of children playing)

GILLESPIE: With the Ruhnama and presidential cult monopolizing the public space, people have few ways to express themselves. Day after day, constant praise for the late president, who named streets, buildings, theaters and vodka, and pretty much everything else after himself, gets tiresome. Turkmen seems to ignore the propaganda completely, but asking people about it was out of the question, since Turkmen can be arrested for speaking to foreigners.

Travel guides warn that restaurants and hotels frequented by foreigners are bugged. One night in Ashgabat, this sound woke me up.

(Soundbite of electronic signal)

GILLESPIE: It's what you hear when a cell phone gets too close to a speaker or radio transmitter. The sound came from the room's air-conditioning vent. Niyazov's successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, has made a few minor changes since coming to power, and he is reaching out to restore relations with Turkmenistan's neighbors.

But the most telling shift, according to a diplomat in Ashgabat, is the gradual removal of golden statues of Niyazov from official buildings where the new president's portrait is beginning to appear instead.

For NPR News, I'm Kristen Gillespie.

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