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He was orphaned at an early age, his father having died fighting the Germans in World War II, and the rest of his family dying in the massive earthquake that leveled Ashgabat in 1948. He was raised in a Soviet orphanage and joined the Communist Party and rose through the ranks, eventually becoming head of the Communist Party of the Turkmen SSR (later known as the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan). After the fall of the Soviet Union, he retained control of the country when it proclaimed independence in 1991, and became its first president.
On October 22, 1993, he styled himself Turkmenbashi (Türkmenbaşy), meaning "Leader of all Ethnic Turkmens", in the style of Kemal Atatürk, "Father of the Turks". On December 29, 1999, he was proclaimed President for Life by the country's rubber-stamp legislature.
Niyazov is an authoritarian leader and is known for his massive, ludicrous cult of personality. Believing Turkmenistan to be a nation devoid of a national identity, he has attempted to rebuild the country in his own image. He renamed the town of Krasnovodsk, on the Caspian Sea, Turkmenbashi after himself, in addition to renaming several schools, airports and even a meteorite after himself and his immediate family. His face appears on all Manat banknotes and large portraits of the President hang all over the country, especially on major public buildings and avenues, and statues of himself and his mother are scattered all over Turkmenistan. The statues include one in the middle of the Kara Kum desert, and a gold-plated statue atop Ashgabat's largest building, the Neutrality Arch, that rotates to face the sun. Niyazov has commissioned a massive palace in Ashgabat commemorating his rule. "I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets - but it's what the people want.", Niyazov said.
The education system indoctrinates young Turkmen to love Niyazov, with his works and speeches making up most of their textbooks' content. The primary text is a national epic written by Niyazov, the Ruhnama or Book of the Soul. This book, a mixture of revisionist history and moral guidelines, is intended as the "spiritual guidance of the nation" and the basis of the nation's arts and literature. With Soviet-era textbooks banned without being replaced by new publications, libraries are left with little more than Niyazov's works. In 2004, the dictator ordered the closure of all rural libraries on the grounds that he thought that village Turkmen do not read. In Niyazov's home village of Kipchak, a complex is being built to the memory of his mother, including a mosque (est. at $100 million) conceived as a symbol of the rebirth of the Turkmen people. The walls of this edifice will display precepts from the Ruhnama along with Qur'an suras.
Niyazov's other efforts to transform Turkmen culture include introducing a new Turkmen alphabet based on the Latin alphabet to replace Cyrillic, defining the stages of life, and renaming the days and months after national heroes and symbols. January was renamed to Turkmenbashi, and April is named after his mother. He has also banned long hair, beards, and gold teeth.
He was appointed President-For-Life by the Parliament, but promised to hold elections in 2010. Niyazov is often noted for his unconventional policies. For example, in August 2004, he ordered that a giant ice palace be constructed in the middle of the desert country, although many observers have said that without some form of technical assistance it will be an impossible dream. He also announced two decrees, the first of which stated that television presenters were banned from wearing make-up as the President had difficulty telling male and female newsreaders apart. The second declared that the chewing of tobacco on Turkmen territory was to be outlawed (because Niyazov had to give up smoking after a successful anti-cancer operation).
In 2004 Niyazov dismissed 15,000 medical workers, replacing them with army conscripts. He followed up this action on 1 March 2005 by ordering the closure of all hospitals outside of Ashgabat. He pronounced on February 28th, 2005: "Why should we waste good medical specialists on the villages when they should be working in the capital?".
After an alleged assassination attempt against him on November 25, 2002, the Turkmen authorities proceeded to arrest massive numbers of suspected conspirators and members of their families. Some critics claim that the attempt was staged in order to crack down on mounting political opposition from inside the country and abroad.
The summer of 2004 saw a leaflet campaign in the capital, Ashgabat, calling for the overthrow and trial of Niyazov. The authorities were unable to stop the campaign and the President responded by firing his interior minister and rector of the police academy on national television. He accused the minister of being incompetent and declared "I cannot say that you had any great merits or did much to combat crime."
In late 2004, Niyazov met with Jean Chrétien to discuss an oil contract in Turkmenistan for a Canadian corporation. In March 2005, news of this meeting caused an uproar amongst opposition circles in Canada, who claimed the affair could damage Chrétien's legacy.
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