To say that Saparmurat Niyazov had developed a cult of personality around himself would be an understatement. A gold leaf statue in the capital rotated with the sun on a 95-metre high pedestal. The idea: that he was – like the sun – the light of his people. His behaviour might seem odd but there was no disguising the ruthlessness with which Niyazov ran the country. He had all the levers of power, whether it be the title of head of the one-party state, chief of the military or president for life.
There was no room for opposition. His rivals were either killed, jailed or sent into exile. Unlike other autocratic leaders he groomed no successor, so obsessed was he that no alternative power base develop. Niyazov ruled Turkmenistan for more than 20 years but there was nothing in his upbringing to predict he would end up president. Born poor, he lost most of his family young and was raised in an orphanage.
Under his rule, propaganda kicked in early. Children were taught to learn the book of poetry that the president had written himself. Failure to know the words cover to cover meant many jobs in government were out of the question. There was even an impact on getting a driving licence.
Niyazov was a showman in public and had the money to spend on expensive symbols because his country has huge gas reserves that its neighbours, including Russia, need. But little of the wealth trickled down to the citizens. Life expectancy for women is particularly low. Naming months after himself as well as having his portrait on bottles of vodka and other goods may seem amusing but human rights groups say there was nothing funny about human rights in Turkmenistan – they were non-existent. Some observers say Niyazov’s real place in history ranks alongside that of the leaders of North Korea and Burma.