Saparmurat Niyazov, the president of Turkmenistan who died in late December, left behind a legacy that includes seemingly ubiquitous golden statues of himself, bans on ballet and lip-synching, an ice palace in the desert, 60 percent unemployment, and a dismal medical system. Niyazov, the self-styled "Head of the Turkmen" or Turkmenbashi, died unexpectedly of heart failure at age 66.
The election to replace Niyazov modeled Central Asian stability. Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, already the acting president, won an election with implausibly high turnout (98.65 percent, according to Turkmenistan news) on February 11.
Turkmenistan under Niyazov's bizarre regime had become increasingly isolated from the outside worldeven its volatile neighbors Iran, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan.
"Controls are not as tight as they were from 1997 to 2004, when all non-Muslim and non-Orthodox activity was banned and communities were regularly raided and harassed," said Felix Corley of the religious liberty organization Forum 18. "But controls and surveillance remain. Christians and other religious minorities have also been prevented from leaving Turkmenistan as the government still operates an exit blacklist."
Carl Moeller, president of Open Doors USA, shared one example of the Christian experience in Turkmenistan. In 2006, after police arrested a couple, their pastor approached the authorities to try to exchange his freedom for theirs. He was beaten and told to walk naked about one-quarter of a mile, proclaiming, "Turkmenbashi is my father." None of them was released.
Despite such persecution, the Protestant church has grown exponentially since the fall of the Soviet Union. Virtually nonexistent in 1991, the church has grown to about 5,000 Christians, according to Open Doors USA. Many of them have taken heart at the opportunity for new national leadership, said Paul Estabrooks, a minister at large for Open Doors International.
"They've had such a rough go for so many years," Estabrooks said, "that it's like a dream for them to see any hope in the situation."
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The Turkmenistan Project reports that current president Berdymukhammedov is reducing the influence of Niyazov and repairing some of the damage of his rule.
Berdymukhammedov has changed the law so that presidents cannot rename institutions and geographic locations, according to RadioFreeEurope.
Turkmenistan.ru, enthusiastically and vehemently pro-government, is aimed at a Russian-speaking audience. They report that schoolchildren are getting textbooks, that Berdymukhammedov has reprimanded the minister of culture, TV, and radio of Turkmenistan for low-quality programming, and that other changes to the laws are being made.
Pravda reported that February election results were blatantly falsified.
www.Ruhnama.com, with a letter from Niyazov, offers Ruhnama t-shirts, coffee mugs, and tote bags. It also has the Turkmenistan national oath, national anthem, and a quiz on principles from the "Lofty Humane Word."
NPR's All Things Considered had an article on "Who Will Succeed Central Asia's Dominant Leaders."
The BBC has a country profile of Turkmenistan.
Wikipedia lists some of Niyazov's decrees (with references).
Articles on Niyazov's cult of personality include:
One-Man Stan | President Niyazov had a problem: How to put Turkmenistan on the map? (Mark Steyn, The Atlantic Monthly)
The personality cult of Turkmenbashi | From rotating gold statues of himself, to renaming the months in honour of his family, Saparmurat Niyazov's rule was authoritarian and eccentric (The Guardian)
Turkmenbashi Everywhere | If You Think Saddam Was Fond Of Himself, Visit Turkmenistan. (CBS News)
All Turkmenbashi, All the Time | The average citizen of Turkmenistan may barely be earning enough to survive, but they've got plenty of swell monuments celebrating President-for-Life Saparmurad Niyazov. (Mother Jones)
When a Kleptocratic, Megalomaniacal Dictator Goes Bad (The New York Times)
Other Christianity Today articles on Turkmenistan are available on our site.