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COLUMN ONE : A Path to Capitalism Via a Cult? : In Turkmenistan, the name and image of its president and onetime Communist boss are everywhere. He says the country 'is going its own way' on reforms. Critics cite a cost in human rights.


ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan — The first hint you get that this is not just your average post-Soviet republic comes as the plane is still circling over this sweltering capital.

The disembodied flight attendant voice that normally just tells you to fasten your seat belt reels off an introduction to Turkmenistan that goes, in part, like this:

"Members of various ethnic groups all live like one big family in our country. They all unanimously--twice--elected the president of Turkmenistan, Saparmurad Atayevich Niyazov, a worthy son of his people, who has been awarded the title Hero of Turkmenistan and the gold medal of 'Altyn Ay.' One of his first decrees after being reelected was a decree on the free use of water, gas and electricity beginning in January, 1993."

Down below is the Saparmurad Niyazov canal--formerly known as the Kara Kum Canal for the desert it crosses--as well as Niyazov schools and Niyazov collective farms. One of the main drags of Ashgabat is named Saparmurad-Leader-of-All-the-Turkmen Avenue. There is also a street and a women's group named for the leader's mother. Soon, Niyazov's face will be on the new currency, the manat, as well.

The country of 4 million, tucked in the far south of formerly Soviet Central Asia above Iran, appears to have elected to become the most outstanding banana republic of the former Soviet Union, transforming its former Communist Party boss into an eastern despot.

But it is not that simple.

To begin with, Niyazov, a white-haired, plump-cheeked man with heavy black brows and a warm brown gaze, is far more reminiscent of former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev than of the world's kooky dictators.

Turkmenistan, he repeats firmly, again and again, is reforming, but "it is going its own way," at its own pace, thank you very much, however it may look to the outside.

For another thing, Turkmen seem sincerely happy with their form of government. And why shouldn't they be? They earn decent salaries, by Russian standards. But bread here still costs just half a penny per loaf, and, as the flight attendant advertised, all utilities are free.

There are not--and never have been--stormy demonstrations on the streets of Ashgabat. Niyazov has introduced a campaign he calls "10 Years of Well-Being"--in effect, 10 years in which he is demanding political stability as the country makes a slow, steady transition from communism to capitalism, from Soviet subjection to true independence.

"We don't deny that the toughest period was when the Soviet Union collapsed," he said in an interview in his cavernous office, lined with white silk chairs. But "we didn't start to copy things done elsewhere. Everyone's mistake was that they listened to what the West told them about how to build a democratic society, and all started to shout slogans of democracy instead of creating the basis for a democratic society.

"Moscow showed us a bad example," he said. "That you have to make noise, shout, go out into the streets, criticize all the past and grab power. That worked for some people. But our position was to deeply think over the transition period. In Western Europe and America it's easy to judge us--you've forgotten your transition period."

Instead, Niyazov says, Turkmenistan decided to plod, carefully, gradually, toward reform, always maintaining a strong safety net for the poor with massive government subsidies. It has begun all the classic moves toward sloughing off socialism, from giving land to private farmers to selling off state-owned factories--but only just.

The watchword, for now, is not reform but stability, the unswerving intent to avoid the turmoil besetting most of the rest of the former Soviet Union.

"Here, we do things not with jumps but smoothly," said Nazik Chariyeva, a teacher of farming who was decked out this day in a long maroon velvet smock for a relative's wedding. "In Moscow, they go with jumps and it leads to nothing good."

The Turkman way looks inviting, especially to the Russians up north who are still smarting under the shock therapy that has thrown their economy into a tailspin. "There are more chances for success (in Turkmenistan) than in any other republic of the Commonwealth of Independent States," the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily wrote recently, marveling that Niyazov is the only leader of a former Soviet republic who has kept his seat since Gorbachev came to power in 1985.

But the Turkman way has a price: a small but undeniable dose of repression.

The Helsinki Watch, which monitors human rights, found numerous instances of silenced dissent and press censorship when its researchers made a swing through Turkmenistan this spring.

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