When the Soviet Union collapsed, it was widely hoped that democracy would take root in the vast region between southern Russia and Iran and Afghanistan, but into the vacuum the opposite has often happened. This is from last Wednesday’s i paper:
Democracy was rarely given serious consideration by the rulers of these weak and shaky new entities. Instead, an authoritarian brand of power was wielded and the countries’ leaders have at various stages become subjects of personality cults designed to make their pre-eminence appear not just preferable but inevitable.
Now the region’s poorest country, Tajikstan, has voted to remove the final impediment to President Emomali Rahmon running for office indefinitely. This will in effect allow the 63-year-old former collective farm boss to rule for life, since all real opposition has been systematically obliterated through bogus prosecution and, on occasion, killings.
Among all Central Asian leaders, Mr Rahmnon may be the one whose face appears on the most billboards and posters. Giant pictures of the President at work are everywhere: the President in a field, the President on a construction site, the President surrounded by children, and so on. Public shows of praise for Mr Rahmon, who has been at the helm since 1992, have long been required of the cowed population. In December, the rubber-stamp parliament voted to elevate him to the freshly devised status of Leader of the Nation – a title intended to tell the nation that he is no regular president.
At the same time, the state propaganda machine went into overdrive to make sure the message got home. An essay competition was held among schoolchildren for the best written work expressing admiration for Mr Rahmon. the President’s name and newly minted title were lent to a village and an orchard in a precedent that looks certain to be repeated.
Mr Rahmon’s title almost certainly was copied from nearby Kazakhstan, where President Nursultan Nazarbayev was elevated to Leader of the Nation in 2010. That status gave the president indefinite freedom from persecution and privileges in decision-making on important issues even after he leaves office – not something the 75-year-old ex-Communist Party boss has displayed any desire to do so soon. the creation of the Leader of the Nation title was followed by an extravagant exercise in myth-making. Lavish biopics, plays, and children’s fairytale books praising Mr Nazarbayev began being issued regularly. Little surprise then that in 2015 he was re-elected with a 97.8% of the vote.
But the mother of all personality cults in central Asia belonged to the late president of energy-rich Turkomenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, who went by the title Turkmenbashi, or father of all Turkomens. Right up to his sudden death in late 2006, gold-leafed statues of Niyazov were going up all over the country and his two-tomed spiritual handbook, the Rukhnama, became required reading for all children and government employees.
When his successor, a seemingly mild-mannered dentist and health minister called Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, was installed, it looked as if the era of such extravagances might have come to an end. But that did not last long. In 2011, Mr Berdymukhamedov got his own title, Arkadag, or protector of the Turkomens.
The image carved out for Arkadag has seemingly been fashioned to strike a vivid contrast with his corpulent predecessor, who died of heart failure at the age of 66, reputedly after much hard living. Mr Berdymukhamedov is regularly filmed riding horses, driving racing cars (and winning races), flying helicopters, cycling, jogging and lifting weights. His talents are made to appear endless. He has written books on subjects from diplomacy and medicine to horses and plants. And in 2009, he dropped in on a new cancer hospital and decided to perform a minor operation.