One of the strangest aspects of a strange dictatorship will end, more than a year after the death of the dictator. Saparmurat Niyazov, the self-styled Turkmenbashi or “father of all Turkmen”, had renamed the months of the year by decree, including April, which he named after his mother. His successor has finally decided that it should be April in Turkmenistan again:
Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, who took over after Niyazov’s death in 2006, said he wanted to go back to traditional names, including January. Niyazov had renamed January after himself – calling it “Turkmenbashi” (father of the Turkmen). Other months were named after heroes and poets. “It is necessary to draft a Majlis [parliamentary] resolution by the end of this half of the year after a very thorough analysis,” the president said.
The late dictator renamed the months in 2002 – one of a series of bizarre decrees that earned Turkmenistan the reputation of being one of the world’s most repressive states. Ordinary Turkmen stuck with the old names, but the new forms became mandatory for officials and state television.
Since becoming president Berdimuhammedov has ended his predecessor’s personality cult. He has allowed internet cafes to open, lifted the ban on foreign operas and increased the number of years children attend school. He has also improved ties with the west.
“He is a different generation from Niyazov. He’s younger, and he understands that Turkmenistan can’t live in isolation from the outside world,” said Sanobar Shermatova, an expert on central Asia based in Moscow. “The iron curtain around Turkmenistan is coming down.”
Well, not quite. Turkmenistan remains an autocracy, and Berdimuhammedov is not a democrat in any real sense of the word. He replaced Niyazov as dictator, through selection of the power elite and not election. The former Soviet republic has a long road ahead before democracy can take hold.
First, Turkmenistan has to rid itself of Niyazov worship. After a tentative start to this process, Berdimuhammedov appears to be making progress. The imposing murals of Turkmenbashi have begun disappearing throughout the nation. Education has expanded, and more cultural contacts with Western nations will accelerate the process. Niyazov kept Turkmenistan in the dark, isolated from the rest of the world, in order to maintain his weird personality cult, and daylight has not fully returned.
At least Turkmen will be able to keep track of the time using the normal names of the months. Berdimuhammedov may want to keep track of the months closely as well. Once Turkmenistan starts grasping everything that Niyazov kept out, including freedom, he may not have a lot of months left until Turkmen demand it of him.