On this day, 27 October in 1991, the new nation of Turkmenistan gained independence from the Soviet Union.
Turkmenistan is one of the lesser known countries to Westerners, partly because under a slightly mad president, it was relatively cut off from the outside world for fifteen years. In fact for many, the exploits of this mad president comprise their limited familiarity with the country.
Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov (pictured above with Turkmen child and bird) first served as First Secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party from 1985 and then as president of Turkmenistan from independence in 1991 to his unexpected death in 2006. He “won” an unopposed election in 1992 then a 1994 plebiscite (with the approval of 99.9% of the vote) to extend his presidential term so that he could oversee a ten-year development plan. On 28 December 1999, a hand-picked parliament declared Niyazov President for Life. He also liked to be known as Türkmenbasy (“Leader of all Turkmen”). During his tenure, he gained a reputation for embezzlement, political suppression and forging a cult of personality.
After independence, Niyazov set about renaming bits of Turkmen space and time after himself. His image replaced those of Marx and Lenin. He renamed the town of Krasnovodsk “Türkmenbasy” after himself, along with schools and hospitals. He renamed days of the week and calendar months after Turkmen national heroes and members of his family. He renamed September after his own book Ruhnama (the president closed public libraries outside the capital, Ashgabat, and believed the only books Turkmen should read were the Qur’an and his own Ruhnama). Other bans included the that of opera and ballet, of beards on young men, of car stereos, and of recorded music in public places. He banned smoking in public places after having to give it up himself.
After Niyazov’s death in 2006, new president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow abolished many of the decrees and name changes. A permanently rotating (so as to always face the sun), gold-plated statue of Niyazov no longer turns in the capital.