SHOWING THE WORLD ‘THE REAL TURKMENISTAN’

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov presides over a country known to many as the “hermit kingdom.” But the “Leader of All Turkmen,” or Turkmenbashi, now says he wants the world to become better acquainted with Turkmenistan — and is launching a new satellite television station to that end.

“The world does not know what is happening in Turkmenistan — the economic growth, the changes in society. We live in an interesting time, you would be amazed at the changes in Ashgabat — the streets, the buildings, the monuments, and the huge lake they are building for the future, the factories and plants,” Niyazov said this month.

To be sure, Turkmenistan has undergone many changes since gaining independence in 1991. The capital Ashgabat has new buildings and a scattering of largely empty five-star hotels. It also has the Arch of Neutrality — commemorating the United Nations decision in 1995 to grant the country neutral status — complete with a revolving golden statue of Niyazov that perpetually faces the sun.

And it has the artificial lake touted by the president. The project, being built in desert lands at an estimated cost of $6.5 billion, does not actually mean more water for Turkmenistan. It just means the same amount of water in a different place.

It is unclear how such achievements have affected the lives of ordinary Turkmen citizens, who continue to struggle on an average monthly wage of less than $20.

The 19 February Flag Day celebrations — which also mark Turkmenbashi’s 64th birthday — portrayed a public living in harmony with their leader. A children’s chorus sang Niyazov’s praises in Turkmen and English, and a magnificent chestnut stallion was presented to the president.

Not everyone, though, is content. Sixty-five-year-old Gurbandurdy Durdykuliev last month told RFE/RL how he planned to spend Flag Day. “I am asking for written permission to hold a protest on 18 and 19 February 2004 in the central square of Balkanabat,” Durdykuliev said. “I have never been a supporter of bloodshed and I would never call on anyone to shed blood. I am proud of my country and my people. I love them.”

If Durdykuliev had said his protest was intended to draw attention to bureaucratic corruption or environmental issues he might have received the permission he sought. But that was not what he wanted. “We want to demonstrate our dissatisfaction with the activities of the president and his bureaucracy,” he said. “During this protest we will demand from the authorities that they pay more attention to the suffering of the people.”

Since then, according to the rights watchdog Amnesty International, Durdykuliev has been forcibly taken from his home and is now reportedly being held in a psychiatric hospital.

This story isn’t likely to be among those mentioned on Turkmenistan’s new satellite television station. Nor is Niyazov’s recent announcement that some 15,000 health-care workers — nearly 15 percent of the sector’s employees — will soon be losing their jobs. It is just the latest in a series of significant cuts to Turkmenistan’s health-care system. The Turkmen Health Ministry says the laid-off employees will likely be replaced by conscripted soldiers.

Niyazov says it will cost at least $13 million to get the satellite station on the air, and the government is holding a tender for the contract next month. Soon, the world could be able to get news in Russian, English, French, Chinese, and Farsi about what Turkmenbashi calls “the real Turkmenistan.”

It remains to be seen, however, if Niyazov’s Turkmenistan has anything in common with what the rest of the world sees. Oleg Panfilov, of Russia’s Center for Journalists in Extreme Situations, said, “It seems Turkmenbashi is confusing information with propaganda.”

(Rozinazar Khoudaiberiev of RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service and Antoine Blua contributed to this report.)

Bruce Pannier