With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 there was a fear that power vacuums in the constituent states could lead to massive instability in the region.
However, while some of the former members embraced full independence, the majority remained aligned under the new Commonwealth of Independent States.
In Turkmenistan it was assumed that the transition would be relatively smooth.
Saparmurat Niyazov had been the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Turkmen SSR since 1985 and had been given the new role of Chairmen of the Supreme Soviet of the Turkmen SSR in 1990. Both of these were the equivalent of President and had meant that Niyazov had been in power for sixteen years at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
He was declared President of Turkmenistan in October 1991.
In 1992 he was elected as the first President the country had selected in an independent electoral process. However, some habits from his days as a Soviet proved harder to shake off.
He was the only candidate.
Niyazov had always been a hardline Soviet and supported the coup attempt in 1991 which had been led by Soviet elements. With the failure of the coup Niyazov moved away from his former partners in the old Soviet Union and set about creating a new, dynamic, independent Turkmenistan.
He decided to do this by embracing the Turkmen culture that had been somewhat forgotten in the Soviet era.
In 1993 he declared himself ‘Turkmenbashi’ or ‘The Leader of All Turkmen’
A plebiscite followed giving Turkmenbashi power until 2002 to oversee his development plan. It had a public approval rating of 99.9%.
In 1999 he was declared President for Life having overseen a recent parliamentary election where he had nominated all the candidates.
Power now secured, Turkmenbashi could move on to the business of transforming Turkmenistan.
One of his first acts was to publish a book called the ‘Ruhnama’ or ‘The Book of the Soul.’
This book contained teachings from Turkmenbashi and soon became a central part of Turkmen life. All schools and libraries were required to keep copies, bookstores were expected to display it prominently and religious buildings were to keep copies alongside their holy books.
The teachings became part of the national curriculum and a test on the Ruhnama soon became a compulsory element in driving tests.
He then moved on to the calender. The months were renamed to recognise key elements of Turkmen history and culture. These included the Ruhnama, Turkmenbashi and his Mother.
A number of laws were enacted by Turkmenbashi personally.
These included a ban on opera and ballet on the grounds they were ‘insufficiently Turkmen’, forbidding the playing of car radios and outlawing beards.
People living in the capital, Ashgabat, were restricted to owning one cat or dog due to a decree on the keeping of ‘herds’ of animals in the city.
One of his more popular decrees was to inaugurate a national day of celebration for the muskmelon, a relative of the watermelon, whose existence in an arid, desert nation often proved vital.
While some of these laws seem whimsical the genesis of others seem pretty obvious.
After heart surgery Turkmenbashi was told by doctors that he had to stop smoking.
He agreed and then banned smoking in all public places and among all government officials.
With huge natural gas reserves to export and sell abroad Turkmenistan should have been well placed economically for a smooth transition into independence.
However Turkmenbashi embarked on a huge programme of building and development which proved to be a drain on the country’s resources.
Along with a chain of palaces for his personal use and one of the world’s largest mosques (which would include teachings from the Ruhnama alongside the Koran) Turkmenbashi had also declared his intention to build a palace of ice in the Copa Deg mountains, just outside Ashgabat. Ice palaces had been popular in the Soviet Union but were usually built in the freezing cities of the North as opposed to a country dominated by the Karakum Desert.
His most notorious creation was the Arch of Neutrality in Ashgabat itself.
A celebration of Turkmenistan’s history as a peaceful nation it was dominated by a gold statue of Turkmenbashi on top of it which rotated constantly so that it was always facing the Sun.
While all this was going on all libraries and hospitals outside of Ashgabat were being closed down. Turkmenbashi felt it was reasonable for people needing medical care to travel to the capital and he argued that so many libraries were unnecessary when people should only be reading the Koran and the Ruhnama, both of which were available from all public buildings.
Another blow to healthcare came when gold teeth were outlawed. Turkmenbashi felt that people’s poor dental health was due to them not taking proper care of themselves.
He had an idea though:
"I watched young dogs when I was young. They were given bones to gnaw to strengthen their teeth. Those of you whose teeth have fallen out did not chew on bones. This is my advice..."
Saparmurat Niyazov died in 2006.
The calender has changed back to the old names that Niyazov replaced, the many references to himself he put into the national anthem have been removed and the many statues and portraits of Turkmenbashi that were dotted around the country have been removed.
One anonymous citizen had a theory about Niyazov and his many self-aggrandizing projects based on the fact that the leader was orphaned at a young age:
“He didn't get enough love as a child.” he said “That's why he needs all this attention now."