washingtonpost.com  > World > Asia/Pacific > Central Asia > Turkmenistan

A Turkmen Tome Gets Foreign Aid

Corporate Patrons Help Spread the Writing of 'President for Life'

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; Page A13

MOSCOW -- In Sicily, a reception was held recently to launch the Italian translation of a controversial book written by Saparmurad Niyazov, dictator and "president for life" of Turkmenistan. In Amsterdam, a Dutch translation of the book was unveiled at a party in a historic 17th-century house.

The various releases this month of the two-volume "Book of Spirit" -- "Ruhnama" in Turkmen -- are part of an international drive to boost the book's circulation as well as what the government-controlled Turkmen media call a "victorious march around the world" by the author-president, 65, also known in his country as Turkmenbashi the Great.

A massive monument to the "Book of Spirit," or Ruhnama, written by Turkmenistan's president, dominates a park in Ashkhabad, the capital. Almost all Turkmens are compelled to study the book, which has been translated into 30 languages for publication abroad. (2003 Photo Burt Herman -- AP)

The book contains Niyazov's moral code as well as his philosophical and historical musings. Its translation into 30 languages and publication outside Turkmenistan have been underwritten by international firms doing business in the natural gas-rich Central Asian republic, according to Turkmen media reports, exiled opposition groups and a number of the companies involved that were contacted by The Washington Post.

Human rights groups say the book is at the center of Niyazov's cult of personality and is ravaging educational and cultural life in his country. Almost everyone in Turkmenistan is compelled to study the book and pass exams about it, and the country's libraries have largely been emptied to leave little but the Ruhnama and Niyazov's collections of poetry. This month, Niyazov ordered most libraries in Turkmenistan closed, according to Russian news reports.

"If the Ruhnama were a benign text, like the memoirs of a U.S. president, this would be harmless, but the Ruhnama is the principal instrument for indoctrination and brainwashing in Turkmenistan," said Erika Dailey, a specialist on the country at the Open Society Institute in Budapest. "Companies cannot ignore that and they have to be called to account."

Those involved in the translation and publication of the book, however, described their efforts as philanthropic.

"We sponsored it for inter-cultural understanding," said Arantxa Doerrie, a spokeswoman for Zeppelin Baumaschinen, a German machinery company that translated the second volume of the book and presented it to Niyazov this month. The company plans to distribute the book in Germany, she said.

"In principle, yes, it is a dictatorship," Doerrie said, "but simultaneously we see that very much is being done to help the people there -- for the infrastructure with the building of streets, for example. That is what we understand. We sell building equipment, so yes, there is a market for us there, but we see our contribution as a way to help the people there."

Niyazov, who allowed the United States to use his country's airspace during the war in Afghanistan, has been in power since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He tolerates no dissent and has turned the country of 5 million into a monument to himself.

The president's image adorns vodka bottles and is shown constantly in the top right corner on national television. A 36-foot-tall, gold-leaf statue of the president rotates atop a 250-foot base to follow the sun. The streets of the capital, Ashkhabad, are shut down when he chooses to whiz around town in one of his cars. And he has renamed months of the year after himself, his mother and his book.

Niyazov appeared in a 90-minute live broadcast from one of his palaces last September to read from his new poetry collection, "The Spring of Inspiration." He also interrupts government meetings to recite his poems, including a session last May when he told his military leadership that he had some verse about the dangers facing the country:

Be vigilant and be cautious, that is my request to you

Even when you and your country are facing luck

And you are as mighty as King Solomon

CONTINUED    1 2    Next >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company