Saparmurat Niyazov, who prefers to be called the Turkmenbashi (Father of the Turkmen), is the President for Life of Turkmanistan. While he lacks the nuclear abitions that propel Kim Jong Il to the front pages, Niyazov is arguably the most insane dictator currently in power.
He was a Soviet functionary who siezed power in Turkmanistan during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has since solidified his control by building a considerable cult of personality. As is usual, posters and statues of himself are every where in Turkmanistan. However, his meglomania runs much deeper. He has renamed the months of the year, and days of the week, after himself, his dead mother, and other Turkman figures. He has replaced the nation's text books with the Ruhnama, or Book of the Soul, which he wrote and is a collection of his wisdom. Most nights he dominates the television broadcasts with long rambling monologues. He's banned music, lip-syncing, smoking, beards and long hair for men, makeup for women newscasters, and gold crowns for teeth.
Some of his attempted public works (very few which get far beyond the wasting of money stage) have been irrigating the desert to grow rice, building a gigantic Ice Palace in the same desert, creating an artificial river for his capital city (since all great cities have rivers), firing his country's medical staff and replacing them with conscript soldiers, and closing all rural libraries and hospitals.
Rich in natural gas, he funds his regime via a pipeline whuich runs to Russia. He also has significant commercial ties with Germany. Because of Turkmanistan's access to Afghanistan, the Turkmenbashi is also a nominal ally of the US.
In spite of repressive measures, opposition to the Turkmenbashi is growing. Should it come to a head it is going to present a significant challenge to the Bush Doctrine. Rice bypassed Turkmanistan when she visited the earthquake damaged region last week, but the US's apparent support of the Turkmenbashi in exchange for access to Afghanistan will appear hypocritical. This is a growing problem that needs to be addressed now, not when the regime's problems come to a head and the mobs are in the street.
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