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A long way to go

Created and then abandoned by the Soviets, Turkmenistan and the other resource-rich republics of Central Asia struggle to capitalize on their newfound freedom.

With the tense rapture of a man living out his greatest ambition and his worst fear, Rejep Jepbarov gazes at the crumbling, ocher-colored walls of the mud-brick fortress before him. This is the Great Maiden Palace, one of the best-preserved monuments of Merv, a 2,500-year-old city in Turkmenistan. Once known as the "Queen of the World,'' Merv was a center of ancient civilization that for centuries rivaled Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus as one of the capitals of Islam.

Jepbarov's task is to tend to what is left of Merv today: a scattered collection of ruins, sprawled across a remote oasis of the Karakum Desert, in the impoverished former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan.

For the archaeologist in Jepbarov, to be in charge of Turkmenistan's greatest historical site is a boyhood dream come true. He imagines this place as a tourist attraction, with signs and guides to explain the significance of the jumble of ruined structures and brush-covered heaps that dot the desert horizon. But the architect in Jepbarov looks at Merv and sees a nightmare. The walls of the city's monuments, built of clay made from mixing camel urine with desert sand, have begun to crumble.

The culprit is the canal that draws water from the Amu Darya River. Conceived by the Soviets in the 1960s to increase cotton yields, the canal has brought life to the parched sands through which it passes, adding much-needed acres of farmland and pasture to a country where only 2 percent of the land is arable. But the canal has also raised groundwater levels, threatening Merv's fascinating ruins with destruction faster than Jepbarov's underfunded crews of workmen can shore up the ancient mortar. "We are trying to save monuments that are collapsing before our eyes,'' Jepbarov says, as he points out the most recent damage to the Great Maiden Palace, built in the seventh century. "It is a race, and we are losing.'' The battle to save Merv is symbolic of Turkmenistan's larger struggle and of the struggle that is being played out in the four other former Soviet republics of Central Asia. These newly independent states are trying to revive histories neglected under seven decades of Communism and carve out national identities from the convoluted mix of peoples who populate the transit route once known as the Great Silk Road.

But at the same time, Turkmenistan and its Central Asian neighbors -- Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- are confronted with the need to survive as independent countries in a remote, desolate region. It is a daunting task, made more difficult by the legacy of Soviet rule, which plundered the Central Asian republics for their resources while leaving little in the way of infrastructure or industry.

Complicating matters is the fact that the Central Asian republics were never meant to be independent states by the man who gave them their current identities, the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Seeking to consolidate control over the vast oil- and gas-rich region that stretches from Mongolia to the Caspian Sea, Stalin split the Turkic-speaking areas of Central Asia into four republics named for peoples -- Turkmens, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz -- that had no history of independent statehood. Wedged among them was Farsi-speaking Tajikistan.

But the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union left the five primarily Muslim Central Asian republics groping for their place in the world community. They must choose among models of government, economic systems, and international alliances. Some high stakes are riding on their choices.

Industry estimates put oil reserves in the Caspian Sea region at up to 200 billion barrels, more than any area outside the Persian Gulf region, which has about 670 billion barrels. The Caspian oil could be worth $4 trillion at current prices, but the only existing pipelines lead to Russia. The region has comparable reserves of natural gas. If the Central Asian republics want new markets for their oil and gas, new routes will have to be built.

Little public attention has been paid in the West to these countries -- many Americans would agree with the Dutch, whose nickname for the Central Asian republics is "verwegistan,'' or "Farawaystan.'' But the battle among regional powers for a share of the resource-related wealth has spurred diplomatic and business activity that has evoked comparisons to the "Great Game'' rivalry for control of the region between the Russian and British empires in the 19th century. Now, Western oil and gas companies, along with competitors from Russia, Iran, Turkey, and China, have rushed to set up offices in remote places like Turkmenistan's capital, Ashkhabad, tucked between the Kopetdag Mountains and the Karakum, or "Black Sands,'' Desert.

For the West, the Central Asian states' independence has provided a number of geopolitical opportunities: to break Moscow's monopoly on supply routes for oil and gas from the region, freeing the West of its reliance on the Persian Gulf nations; to help form a corridor of friendly, wealthy nations in an area that has been isolated from the West since the Russian conquest of Central Asia in the late 19th century.

Another distinct, if remote, possibility created by the Soviet breakup was that Western influence could somehow improve the lives of the 60 million people who live in Central Asia.

The results, so far, have been mixed. Western countries have succeeded in building friendly ties and negotiating contracts for the region's oil companies. But seven years after the Soviet empire fell, none of the Central Asian republics has developed a vibrant civil society or Western-style democratic institutions. Instead, despotic, neo-Soviet regimes have flourished while most of the region's people continue to live in squalor.

In Turkmenistan, there is one big reason for the continuity of life after independence: the country's president, Saparmurad Niyazov. The head of the ruling Communist Party since 1986, Niyazov vehemently opposed independence for his people. Instead, it was foisted on Turkmenistan by the Soviet collapse in late 1991. He renamed his party the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan but never veered much from Soviet traditions. When Niyazov was elected president, in 1992, he was the only candidate on the ballot. Two years later, Niyazov had his rule extended through 2002 in a referendum that officials said was supported by 99.9 percent of the population.

Today, Niyazov enjoys a personality cult that Stalin would have appreciated. He is the head of the government, the ruling party, and, more important, the small clique of insiders that controls the country's wealth. The official explanation for Niyazov's preeminence is that Turkmenistan, a country that has never known democratic leadership, needs time to adjust.

"Our country is not ready for democracy,'' says a foreign ministry official who, like most people in the capital of Ashkhabad, asked that his name not be used. "We need a strong ruler to show us the way.'' Niyazov, who had heart surgery in November, avoids giving interviews. But officials and diplomats privately admit that Niyazov's grip on power is an attempt to maintain political stability at all costs and avoid the ethnic and religious tensions that have buffeted other former Soviet republics.

As an autocratic leader, Niyazov is certainly not alone in Central Asia, a part of the world that has no democratic traditions. Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, a former Communist Party boss nicknamed "Papa'' by the population, tolerates little opposition. Neither do the increasingly autocratic regimes of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

But in his knack for self-promotion, Niyazov stands head and shoulders above his Central Asian counterparts. Portraits of the doughty, silver-haired leader, who calls himself Turkmenbashi, or "The Head of the Turkmen,'' stare down from street signs, office buildings, and hotel-room walls. Visitors fly into Turkmenbashi International Airport. Statues of Turkmenbashi grace every lobby and foyer. Schoolchildren are taught that their tongues will fall off if they say anything bad about their president. The press evidently thinks so, too: Turkmenbashi's every visit, statement, and thought is covered in reverent detail by the local media. Turkmenbashi is the founder of the country's main newspaper. Broadcasts on the only Turkmen television station have a Turkmenbashi logo at the bottom of the screen.

Like Stalin, Turkmenbashi has a city named after him, the Caspian Sea port formerly known as Krasnovodsk. Unlike Stalin, Turkmenbashi has his own cologne, Prezident, which, unfortunately, smells like mosquito repellent, as well as a cologne named for his mother, who is described on the box as "one of the bright examples of the patriotic Turkmen woman.'' Such over-the-top reverence is too much even for most Turkmens, who privately joke about their leader's personality cult. Indeed, Turkmenbashi seems to command little in the way of true respect among his countrymen. But he does instill fear. Opposition parties are banned, and secret police are, like Turkmenbashi's portrait, always watching.

Says Nuriberdi Nurmamedov, one of the regime's few outspoken critics in Turkmenistan: "You can be sentenced to jail terms for saying that there is nothing in the stores while standing in line.'' Mindful of this fact, most Turkmens keep any misgivings they may have to themselves. During public events, like a recent festival in honor of the visiting Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami, they seemed enthusiastic enough. In a scene that evoked the public displays of reverence shown to Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein, or the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, Khatami and Niyazov were greeted by rows of workers waving flags and proudly chanting the national slogan, with its haunting similarity to Nazi Germany's ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer: "the people, the Motherland, Turkmenbashi.'' But Turkmenistan is not Nazi Germany, nor is it Iraq or North Korea. For all the repression of Niyazov's domestic policies, he is eagerly forging ties with the West. In February, he visited European Union Headquarters in Brussels. On April 22, he will make his first trip to Washington, where he is scheduled to meet with President Clinton.

Western governments, especially those with companies interested in winning a share of the profits to be made in the Central Asian republics, have gone along with many of Turkmenistan's quirks. While they occasionally criticize Niyazov's regime over human rights abuses, Western diplomats in Ashkhabad tend to accept the party line that Turkmenistan is not ready for democracy.

Niyazov "has decided that the economy should come first, and democracy will follow,'' says one Western diplomat. "And the economy won't improve until the pipelines are built.'' Niyazov has promised that, one day, Turkmens will enjoy the kind of prosperity that Kuwait does. At the moment, the only thing that the two countries have in common is sand. Situated on the world's fourth-largest natural-gas reserves, Turkmenistan has been unable to sell its gas since March of last year, when it shut off its pipeline to Russia to protest Moscow's high tariffs. Since then, Turkmenistan has had no source of cash. A new pipeline to Iran is not expected to bring profits anytime soon, and all of the other projected gas routes are years from completion. Turkmens earn an average of $18 a month. In 1996, Niyazov brought back Communist-era rations for basic food staples.

The difficult economic position has not escaped the notice of critics of the regime. "Factories are closed, farms are lying in disrepair, people are out of work, and there's nothing in the stores,'' says Nurmamedov, the leading dissident, with a grim smile.

It's a blustery winter afternoon at Nurmamedov's cozy house in a remote neighborhood on the outskirts of Ashkhabad, and Nurmamedov, a former director of a technical institute, is in no hurry.

He has been arrested or investigated 21 times by authorities but has never been held for long. Once was in 1991, when Nurmamedov tried to organize a "no'' vote to then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's referendum on whether the Soviet Union should continue to exist. That effort was stopped by Niyazov. Nurmamedov flashes that grim smile again as he reminds his listener that Niyazov now portrays himself as the father of Turkmen independence.

Nurmamedov tried to run against Niyazov in the 1992 presidential election. All that got him was another trip to jail. The last time he tried to lead a demonstration was in 1995. Police, citing a law banning meetings by unregistered organizations, broke up the rally by force, and many of the 1,000 or so participants were briefly rounded up. Lately, Nurmamedov spends his time with his books and meeting with foreigners who want to hear something other than the party line.

"You need 1,000 members to register a party, but you are not allowed to gather people if you aren't registered,'' Nurmamedov says. "And if you can't have meetings and rallies, how will you attract people? It's a vicious circle.'' Most of Nurmamedov's dissident friends have left Turkmenistan. He says a few are still in custody, although he notes it is impossible to calculate the number of political prisoners. "The devil knows how many,'' he says. "If they arrest somebody, we never hear about it.'' Nurmamedov introduces his son, who is majoring in Eastern studies at the local university. Nurmamedov himself cannot get a job at his old institute but says he has made "business deals'' that have allowed him to get by. He now seems to be tolerated by the Niyazov regime, which evidently no longer sees him as a serious threat.

When I ask him about the theory, posed by the regime and seconded by diplomats, that Turkmenistan is a nation not ready for democracy, Nurmamedov rushes to his bookshelf and returns with volumes on the history of the Turkmens. He reads sections in which Russian travelers tell of the Turkmens' fierce independence, of their almost egalitarian nomad traditions.

"The real Turkmenistan has no historical tradition of a personality cult,'' Nurmamedov says. "That is something we got from the Soviet system. It's just not true when they say that there is this system because otherwise there will be chaos. Ask anyone. Do people bow to this cult?'' Niyazov's portrait "is everywhere, but people aren't afraid of him. They're just poor.'' At this point, Nurmamedov stops and grins. "You're still writing? This time, you'll get me in jail for sure.'' One of the problems with creating a nation-state from the scrap left over by centuries of nomadic existence and seven decades of Soviet rule is finding a national identity. What is a Turkmen, and how is he or she different from an Uzbek or a Kazakh? The basic Soviet education, which focused on events in Russia's past and dealt with history in Marxist-Leninist terms that downplayed nationality and emphasized class struggle, did not address these questions. Today, many people are searching for answers.

One way Turkmen authorities have sought to fill the identity gap has been to resurrect as a national symbol the Akhal-Teke horse, a legendary breed that was nearly wiped out by the Soviets and all but forgotten outside the world of horse experts. Every bank note of the national currency, the manat, features both Niyazov's face and a rearing stallion. The national seal also features an Akhal-Teke, with its distinctive long neck, slender legs, and thin face.

Named for the Akhal oasis in the desert homelands of the most powerful Turkmen tribe, the Tekes, the Akhal-Tekes have had many nicknames that reflect their storied history. The Greeks who conquered the area in the fourth century BC called them "heavenly horses''; Alexander the Great's steed, Bucephalus, is said to have been an Akhal-Teke. The Seljuk Turks, who in the 1100s made Merv the capital of their empire, honored the Akhal-Tekes' legendary endurance with the nickname "the horses that sweat blood.'' And the Turkmen nomad-warriors, aware that their horses' speed and endurance were what made their armies so feared, called them "the wings of the Turkmen.'' Like the Turkmen carpets that are incorrectly known to the world as Bukhara rugs (named after a city in neighboring Uzbekistan), the Akhal-Teke has spent most of recent history in the shadow of the better-known Arab breed. In fact, Turkmen horse breeders say that the Akhal-Teke is the ancestor of both the Arab racehorse and the English charger, and dates to man's earliest efforts to domesticate horses, four millennia ago.

That may or may not be true. But at the Akhal-Yurt Horse Farm, in the foothills of the sturdy Kopetdag range that straddles Turkmenistan's border with Iran, the lines between legend and fact are happily blurred. Here, private horse breeders are working to revive the population of the Akhal-Teke, prepare the horses for auction, and raise Turkmenistan's international image in the process.

"These horses are our living sculptures,'' says Geldy Kyarizov, the farm's director. "We Turkmens have horse breeding in our blood.'' Kyarizov says many of the "Arab chargers'' supplied to Europe in the 17th century were in fact Akhal-Tekes. "What can I say?'' he says with a shrug, as a farm worker shows off a striking black stallion. "The Arabs had the better brand name, but we had the better horses.'' The Turkmens' horsemanship allowed them to mount a resistance to Moscow for more than four decades after Russia conquered the region in the 1880s. To prevent the Turkmens from rebelling again, under the Soviet regime, Stalin in 1936 made it a crime in Turkmenistan for individuals to keep horses at home and consigned the animals to collective farms. But it was Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who dealt the Akhal-Tekes the near-fatal blow.

"Once the country had tractors, Khrushchev decided our horses were of no use,'' Kyarizov says. "He ordered them made into sausage.'' Niyazov's first decree after he was appointed to head Turkmenistan's Communist Party, in 1986, was to halt the slaughter of the remaining horses. There were only about 1,250 Akhal-Tekes left by then. He also helped Kyarizov, who was illegally breeding Akhal-Tekes, escape criminal charges. Today, the number of Akhal-Tekes is above 2,000. Niyazov has made a habit of presenting the horses as gifts; former British prime minister John Major, Russia's president, Boris N. Yeltsin, and former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani are among the dignitaries who have received Akhal-Tekes. The trouble is, Akhal-Tekes do not always make good gifts. Rafsanjani was thrown off his horse the first time he tried to ride it. And Yeltsin's horse did not survive the trip to Moscow.

"They do not take well to change,'' Kyarizov explains. "They were bred to be loyal to one master for their lifetime.'' These gift horses reveal another side of President Niyazov's character that has profoundly affected the way his country is developing: a flair for showmanship.

Even as the country gets poorer, the government has gone on a building spree. On the ruins of the Geok-Tepe fortress outside Ashkhabad, where Russian czarist troops defeated a Turkmen army 110 years ago, Niyazov has built one of the largest mosques in the world.

New mosques and modern Islamic colleges have sprouted in Ashkhabad as well, symbols of a prosperity that has yet to arrive and a newfound devotion to Islam that seems out of step with the populace. Few people worship at the mosques, and religious holidays are not officially observed in the nation.

The building boom has produced glitzy casinos and scores of marble-encased luxury hotels (some with friendly little notices in each room requesting that guests register their prostitutes). If luxury hotels per capita were the only measure of a city's wealth, then Ashkhabad would have to be one of the richest urban centers in the world.

But these pleasure palaces were erected to amuse a new class of rich Turkmens and free-spending foreign investors that have both yet to materialize. The hotels are empty. Traffic is especially light on a nearly abandoned highway on the outskirts of town, studded with 30 new hotels and derisively referred to by locals as "millionaire mile.'' "People don't need new hotels,'' an Ashkhabad resident named Murat says as we drive by a grade school redone with a facade of marble. "We just want our own houses back.'' Those would be the small, one-story huts in the center of town that Niyazov had torn down to clear space for his $60 million gold-domed presidential palace of white marble. Residents like Murat were relocated to high-rises outside of town. Another project that has drawn criticism is the $7 million Arch of Neutrality under construction in the center of the capital, a 210-foot-high eccentricity evocative of a futuristic Eiffel Tower, topped by a 36-foot-high revolving statue of Niyazov.

Turkmen officials say such projects are aimed at putting Ashkhabad on the map. Some of the funding has been provided by Turkey, eager to establish a place of prominence with its ethnic cousins in Turkic-speaking Central Asia and by far the largest foreign investor in Turkmenistan, with about $2 billion in building and development projects. But diplomats and others privately question whether Turkmenistan's badly strained cash reserves are being properly used. "If they are going to make this place a serious capital, there are things they can do,'' says one Western diplomat. "But they feel they have to raise a monument to neutrality.'' Outside Ashkhabad, the signs of prosperity disappear into the parched desert and the monotonous clay and brush landscape of the land along the main canal. The towns out here, ensembles of gray cinder blocks, might as well have never left the Soviet Union. In the gritty industrial city of Mary, the modern-day Merv, located just west of the ancient ruins and 220 miles northeast of Ashkhabad, hotels are measured not in stars but in broken light bulbs and offers from prostitutes prowling the bar.

An administrator at the Hotel Sarjan suggests a liaison in the comfort of her apartment, "with clean girls.'' The administrator says her two young sons are also in the apartment, but for a price, she could get rid of them for the night. Turkmenbashi has recently outlawed prostitution in the capital, but the ban has not made it out here.

"You have to understand, we have no way to make a living,'' the administrator explains. Her monthly salary is the equivalent of $8. People out here who have seen Ashkhabad do not understand why none of the money from the country's rich reserves of oil and gas has made it to them. They wonder why, if the country has so much natural gas, the supply that reaches their houses is so sporadic. And they wonder why anyone should pay money to workers who spend their time propping up crumbling walls of ancient mud.

"We have all this gas and oil and only 4 million people,'' says a shepherd grazing his animals in the shadow of Merv's Great Maiden Palace who asked that his name not be used. "We should all be rich, but as you see, we are poor. We lived better under the Soviets. But don't write that.''

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