BY JOHN INTINI • Having climbed out from under the thumb of a narcissistic dictator, the citizens of Turkmenistan are feeling rather hopeful these days. Last week, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov, who took over the leadership of the Central Asian country after “president-for-life” Saparmyrat Niyazov died of a heart attack in December, signed a Code of Social Guarantees restoring old-age pensions, cancelled under the previous regime, and introduced new state benefits—providing a much-needed boost to Turkmenistan’s standard of living, currently ranked a dismal 105 out of 177 by the United Nations.
Berdymuhammedov, a former dentist who has been rumoured to be Niyazov’s illegitimate son, had pledged to continue the ironfisted policies of his predecessor. During his two decades in charge of the former Soviet republic, Niyazov developed a cult of personality that rivalled North Korea’s Kim Jong II (schools, theatres and villages—even the month of January—in Turkmenistan bear his name) and banned, among many other things, ballet, gold teeth and recorded music.
Berdymuhammedov’s recent political record, however, indicates a much softer approach to governing. Since he took office, non-Turkmen government officials, fired by Niyazov, are back at work; unrestricted access to the Internet has been made available to the public for the first time; and the number of years children are allowed to attend school has been extended. Under the new law, 100,000 retirees will have their pensions reinstated (Niyazov had stopped payments in February 2006) and pensions for families of Second World War veterans are getting a substantial hike. As well, new mothers will get a lump sum for each newborn and 250,000 manat ($12) a month for the first 18 months after birth. By the time these kids are walking, maybe Turkmenistan will have cracked the top 100. M
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