Friday, March 9, 2007

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan — An old woman drinks shots of vodka in a warm, dingy room, sobbing at the thought of living out her life here — that is, in the Turkmenistan that outsiders aren’t supposed to see, behind the marble and gold facades.

“They lie when they say there’s no famine,” she said, telling of relatives starving in the countryside where reporters cannot go. The government imposes brainwashing and imprisons on a whim, she said.

Most of all, she tells of the desperation under the reign of longtime dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in December, and fears it will continue. He used the nation’s vast wealth in natural gas to create monuments to himself in a society that he virtually sealed off from the outside world.

He asked his people to call him Turkmenbashi, “father of the Turkmen.”

‘Here is to risk death’

“You cannot speak, you cannot complain’ because if you do, they send you to you-know-where,” said the old woman, who pleaded with a reporter not to reveal anything about her family for fear of reprisals. “To tell the truth, here is to risk death.”

In two trips to Turkmenistan after the unexpected death of Mr. Niyazov, 66, from heart failure, the interview with this woman was exceptional for two, undoubtedly related, reasons: It was unsupervised by government minders, and it was the only conversation in which a Turkmen would utter a critical word about the country’s leadership.

A small number of foreign reporters were allowed into Turkmenistan last month for the inauguration of new President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, a former dentist and career Niyazov loyalist. But access to ordinary Turkmen was strictly limited, as government minders accompanied reporters nearly everywhere they went and said trips outside the capital were “impossible.”

But the old woman, who invited this reporter into her home in a rare unsupervised moment one evening, knelt before a low table and spoke for more than an hour. She spoke in Russian, through another reporter who translated, of the brutality of the omnipresent police. Friends were stripped of jobs or citizenship with no recourse. Non-ethnic Turkmen suffered discrimination. There was a broad culture of fear and corruption.

She spoke of rampant crime and drug abuse and of entire neighborhoods razed to make room for Mr. Niyazov’s grandiose monuments to himself. His government built a capital city of glorious extravagance, with fountains gushing from the sand, artificial forests sprouting in the desert and gold-covered domes and statues proclaiming Turkmenbashi’s greatness.

“Maybe they’ll tear this down, too,” she said, pointing at the peeling walls.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based organization that monitors conflict zones, backed most of her claims and added, “the human rights record under Niyazov was one of the most abysmal in the world.”

“Prisoners of conscience swelled the prison population,” many of them in “appalling conditions, including extreme overcrowding,” it said, citing a study by the London-based International Center for Prison Studies, which estimated that 22,000 Turkmen were imprisoned in 2000, the last year for which data was available.

“Torture and drugging with psychotropic substances were common,” the ICG report added. “Large parts of Turkmenistan,” it said, “are off limits even to citizens.”

The police state and excesses of Turkmenistan were funded by what the CIA says is about 480 cubic miles of proven natural gas reserves in a country slightly larger than California and with a population of just over 5 million.

With these rich energy reserves, the former Soviet republic’s strategic location at the heart of Central Asia makes it very attractive to outside powers competing for a toehold in the region — among them Russia, Iran, the United States, Turkey and China. It has been in the regime’s interest — and perhaps also that of the influential nations seeking to exploit its gas wealth — for order to be maintained at any cost.

Mr. Berdymukhamedov, the new president, has dropped tantalizing hints of reform, but few expect democracy and political freedoms to arrive soon.

At one market, a group of women proudly said they had voted in the election, Turkmenistan’s first, but none could remember the name of the man they had voted for. “The first one,” several of them finally agreed.

Turkmen authorities reported a 99 percent voter turnout, with Mr. Berdymukhamedov winning 89 percent of the votes. But the election was not monitored by international authorities and according to numbers this reporter jotted down at the inauguration ceremony, the vote percentages for the six candidates added up to more than 100 percent.

But with Afghanistan to the southeast, Uzbekistan to the north, Iran to the southwest and radical Islamists on every side, even the old woman praised Turkmenistan as an oasis of stability in a volatile neighborhood.

“There’s no war, that’s the principle,” she said. “We don’t have to wake up to war, and that’s something.”

Similar statements could be heard in other, government-monitored, interviews across the capital.

“There are no bombs in the streets,” said Annakordova Raisa, a lawyer who was standing near a monument to Turkmenistan’s independence from Russia. Like so many others, Mrs. Raisa added a good word for the former president: “Whatever we wanted, he gave us,” she said, a government minder translating.

Even with the minders present, there were hints that something was off here: On the street, a talkative young man tightened an imaginary noose around his neck, a sign that he worried about saying too much. A woman in a market made her fingers into a gun and put it to her head, signaling the same.

Everywhere, Turkmen repeated the same mantra: “Whatever we wanted, he gave us,” Mrs. Raisa said of Mr. Niyazov, whose cult of personality is rivaled in the modern world only by that of Kim Jong-il in North Korea.

Turkmen had especially effusive praise for the policy of giving away free gas, electricity, water and salt, and keeping fuel costs negligible.

In the places reporters were allowed to go, Turkmen did appear for the most part to be friendly, cheerful and proud. And for all its gaudiness, Ashgabat is a marvel to behold, a sort of theme park of marble and gold dedicated to Turkmen greatness.

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