WASHINGTON, DC - Thursday, August 26, 2010 -
The garish and gaudy golden statue of Turkmenistan’s founding president has been toppled from its dominating position on a spire towering over the city of Ashgabat. Its fall is far more than symbolic.
Local media outlets and the BBC reported Thursday that the great golden statue of President Saparmurat Niyazov, the veteran Soviet Communist party functionary who ruled as Turkmenistan’s first president from the beginning of 1992 to his death almost 15 years later in December 2006, has been removed.
The move was not unexpected. Niyazov’s successor, current President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, made clear in January that the statue was going to be taken out of Ashgabat’s parliament square.
Every visitor to Ashgabat - the beautiful, visionary new city that Niyazov, who took the proud name and title of Turkmenbashi (“Father of the Turkmen”), erected to his own glory – had seen the statue. It was impossible to miss it.
The 50-foot-high, giant statue was covered in gold and it stood on top of a gargantuan arch that rose nearly 250 feet into the sky. The statue had a clockwork base so that it always rotated to always face the sun and brilliantly reflect it. The clockwork mechanism was turned off a few weeks ago.
The toppling of the statue takes away one of the most striking and even bizarre monuments to ever have been built in Eurasia. It also highlights the gradual, carefully choreographed but very real policy changes that Turkmenistan has witnessed since Berdimuhamedov took over at the beginning of 2007.
Under Niyazov, Turkmenistan was by far the most repressive government in Central Asia and one of the most notorious in the world for its ruler’s excesses. Niyazov renamed the days of the week and the months of the year after himself and his family members. He littered the capital and the country with portraits of himself. And Turkmenistan under his rule was almost as isolated in the world as North Korea still is today.
Turkmenistan participated as a very reluctant member of the Russian-led, 12-nation Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) – it didn’t ratify the CIS constitution and only participated as an unofficial associate member. Turkmenistan never joined the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or the six-nation Russian- and Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), also known as the Shanghai Pact. Niyazov didn't want the Kremlin, or anyone else, telling him what to do.
And although Turkmenistan sits on one of the greatest reservoirs of natural gas in Asia and one of the largest in the world, Niyazov was far slower to develop them than were the rulers of neighboring Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Berdimuhamedov has received a great deal of criticism from Western governments and human rights organizations for not immediately dismantling the rigid authoritarian system he inherited from his predecessor. But especially in the economic realm, and in the area of liberalizing culture and contacts with the wider world, he has made major strides for which he is not usually given credit. In most respects, he has played the role of Nikita Khrushchev, who significantly liberalized the Soviet Union and improved the quality of life of its people, following the death of long-time tyrant Joseph Stalin in the 1950s.
To continue the comparison, Berdimuhamedov has proven far more daring than Niyazov, and in key respects, even more than other Central Asian leaders, in breaking the historic monopoly that Russia has enjoyed over controlling the oil and natural gas exports of the Central Asian nations and of the Caspian Basin to the outside world.
With a $4 billion loan from China, Berdimuhamedov green-lighted the rapid and successful construction of a natural gas pipeline from his country to western China, and put an end to the Russian trade hegemony. The pipeline began operations on Dec. 15, 2009 and by 2012 it should be carrying 30 billion cubic meters of Turkmenistan’s natural gas every year to China, supplying an amazing 50 percent of China’s annual natural gas consumption.
And as CAN has recently reported, Berdimuhamedov has also given the U.S. oil corporations – ConocoPhillips, Chevron and TX Oil – status as the preferential bidders for two exploration blocks in the southern Caspian Sea.
On Wednesday, Bloomberg reported that ExxonMobil was also going to open an office in Ashgabat.
The opening of the Turkmen gas fields to US companies marks a significant turnaround to Turkmenistan’s formerly isolationist ways. Recognizing the enormous profits that can be generated from allowing foreign companies to develop the oil and gas fields in the Caspian, which are estimated to hold 12 billion tons of oil and 5.5 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, Berdimuhamedov has taken to courting Western and U.S. companies. That’s something that his predecessor never would have considered.
With this new policy, the already wealthy Turkmen state stands to grow in regional importance and massive growth.
But Niyazov’s golden statue won't be there to see it.