Occupying a full square meter in the cupboard-sized office, Mr. T.’s photo looked kindly down on us when we collected our Turkmenistan transit visa. It was our fifth visit to the Turkmen embassy. “Next Friday 5 o’clock,” the officer had grunted ten days ago, when we had finally been allowed, on our third visit, to enter the embassy compound and had handed in our visa application. We would see more of Mr. Turkmenbashi soon.
“Turkmenbashi”, or “Leader of all ethnic Turkmens” is the name adopted by Saparmyrat Niyazov after he turned President of independent Turkmenistan in 1991. Before that he had already ruled the country for six years – under Soviet guidance, namely as General Secretary of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan (CPT). When the Soviet Union fell apart, he simply renamed the CPT in “Democratic Party of Turkmenistan”, banned all other parties and tightened his grip on the country – this time without superiors in Moscow.
Turkmenistan, a rich country – or is it?
Although Turkmenistan consists mostly of desert and has a population of only about 4.5 million people, it is a rich country: rich in oil and gas. At 0.02 Euro at black market rates, petrol is ridiculously cheap. The official currency is the Turkmen Manat, which is artificially strengthened by a fixed exchange rate of five times the black market rate. Foreigners have to pay hotels and train / ship tickets in Dollars using the official rate. A hotel room priced at 12 USD in Manat costs 50 USD for foreigners. This fictitious exchange rate has the effect that in official statistics, Turkmenistan’s per capita income appears relatively high compared to the low food prices in the region (but of course the bazaars operate on the black market rate, and spending power is only a fifth of the official figure…).
As we had heard and anticipated, police and military are omnipresent in Turkmenistan. In the centre of Ashgabad, police and militia are positioned about every 10 meters. Taking photos of government buildings, or even of the private residences of the president, is strictly forbidden.
At frequent road controls during our transit through Turkmenistan (at least every 100 km), we had to show our passports for “registraziya”. On the other hand, curiosity often broke the ice and the language barrier when our fellow travelers in shared taxis thumbed through our passports, showed their own birth dates and compared everyone’s photos. “I’m the oldest”, Annagul (36) cried and demanded the front seat – but she soon returned to us on the back bench out of concern that it would not be appropriate to have Muhammad sit next to us.
Mr T everywhere on our Turkmenistan transit
During our transit in Turkmenistan Mr. T. followed us around the country. His photos and wall paintings adorned all government buildings, and numerous Mr.T.-statues populated the public parks. He seemed just as friendly as everyone else, incessantly smiling, and with those wrinkles in the corner of their eyes. Hadn’t the personality cult itself been so creepy, we might have taken him for a benevolent ruler eager to achieve the best for his people.
“Turkmenbashi schön, ja?”, asked Kurban, a fellow passenger, who had learned German at school, and winked at us. We were not sure whether he had really asked if we think Mr. T. “handsome”. After all, Kurban seemed to be interested in politics. Cautiously we only indicated amazement that Mr. T. looks so young in the pictures. Later, Kurban told us that he was an officer and had once shaken Mr. T.’s hand.
Turkmenbashi – the town
At the latest on the fourth day of our 5-day visa we had to be in Turkmenbashi. A strange coincidence? No, a town which Mr. T. renamed after himself (it used to be Krasnodarsk). We head there to catch the unscheduled ferry to Baku in Azerbaijan.
While waiting for the ticket office to open, a Turkmen businessman showed us the background picture on his handy, a pre-set image of Mr. Turkmenbashi.