Sunday, July 29, 2007

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan — The hottest-selling items in Ashgabat’s markets are photographs of the new president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, who appears set to carry on a personality cult rivaling that of the Kim dynasty in North Korea.

Pictures of the new leader, who took office earlier this year, have been springing up on billboards, on public buildings, next to fountains and in school classrooms across the country, often in the middle of the night.

Smaller likenesses of Mr. Berdimuhammedov are being snapped up for display in homes and offices — although for some residents whose affection for the late president, Sapurmurat Niyazov, remains strong, it is too much, too soon.

“We were all shocked by it,” said Irina, who declined to give her last name. “You’re used to seeing one portrait everywhere, and now you see another one. Everyone is talking about it.”

Under Mr. Niyazov, who died in December, Turkmenistan was the home of the most pervasive cult of personality this side of North Korea.

Mr. Niyazov renamed himself Turkmenbashi — meaning “Father of the Turkmen” — and then gave the same name to the first month of the year, the country’s main Caspian seaport and its tallest mountain. Statues of him, frequently made of gold, were erected across the capital, Ashgabat. Pictures of him were posted everywhere.

Whether that cult will continue under Mr. Berdimuhammedov is of interest to the 5 million residents of this former Soviet republic, as well as to the United States, Russia, Europe and China.

All are eager to get a piece of Turkmenistan’s substantial reserves of natural gas, estimated to be fourth-largest in the world, but largely untapped in part because of the difficulty of doing business with the eccentric Mr. Niyazov.

Mr. Berdimuhammedov, 50, is a former dentist and minister of health who was little known even in Turkmenistan until he was thrust, via Soviet-style internal maneuvering, into the presidency.

If the public wasn’t familiar with him before, they certainly are now.

The portraits began appearing at the end of last month, at the same time an order was given to schools, health clinics and other government buildings to replace their Niyazov photos with those of Mr. Berdimuhammedov.

The changes are sometimes imperceptible because Mr. Berdimuhammedov closely resembles Mr. Niyazov, and even locals have a hard time distinguishing between the two.

It helps that Mr. Berdimuhammedov is usually shown wearing a lapel pin bearing Mr. Niyazov’s profile.

The billboard-sized photos apparently are changed in the middle of the night, and residents notice the new portraits only in the morning.

Diplomats are watching which ministries are first to change their photos, using a sort of neo-Kremlinology to track the opaque internal politics of Turkmenistan.

“The danger of a personality cult is here again, unfortunately,” said one Western diplomat. “He has to be careful not to overdo it.”

Despite the burgeoning Berdimuhammedov photographs, locals and foreign residents say, people are slowly starting to feel more comfortable talking openly.

The government has announced that it will recognize foreign university degrees, has reinstated a year of high school that Mr. Niyazov eliminated and is bringing foreign languages back into the curriculum. Travel companies report that more tourist visas are being granted.

In most spheres, however, little has changed. Opposition political parties are still banned, and there is no free press.

There is still a significant fear of speaking in public or to journalists, and people rarely mention Mr. Niyazov or Mr. Berdimuhammedov by name, preferring the terms “the former president” and “the new president.”

“It’s going to take at least a couple of years to see what kind of government this is,” Irina said. “When Turkmenbashi came in, it was great; there were so many changes, and he seemed like a liberal. And then you see what happened.”

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