ASHKHABAD, TURKMENISTAN — HE stares down from portraits atop buildings. His words crowd out news in local papers. His face lurks on every denomination of currency here.
Even if they tried, Turkmen citizens would have trouble getting away from their president, Saparmurat Niyazov. "People, Motherland, Turkmenbashi," intone official propagandists. The latter term means "chief of all the Turkmen," and there is only one man in the country who can safely claim that title.
The personality cult in Turkmenistan is but an extreme case of Central Asia's taste for the strongman. In name, these independent nations of the old Soviet empire are republics. But few republics ever relied so much on the perceived power of the men who rule them.
That is par in a region that knew Stalin, Tamerlane, and Genghis Khan. The latest leaders may have no taste for empires but do keep a lid on regional rivalries.
"People don't want change - they are afraid of it," says Natalia Ablova, director of the independent Kyrgyz-American Human Rights Bureau. "Now they want stability, and stability means keeping the current leader, whoever he is, whatever he does," she adds.
In four of the five Central Asian republics, the men in charge assumed control when their countries were still part of the Soviet Union. The fifth, Tajikistan, is a war-torn political basket case sure to be used as an example by defenders of authoritarianism.
In 1992, the late Tajik president, Rahman Nabiyev, agreed in the face of popular unrest to share power with the opposition. His subsequent overthrow unleashed a civil war that has divided the country by region and ideology. "Had they had a different president in Tajikistan, there would be peace, there wouldn't be a half-million refugees, there wouldn't be so much blood spilled, so many problems," says Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev in an interview. "Nabiyev turned out to be a weak-willed man. He stepped aside."
Mr. Akayev's own rule has heretofore been held up by the West as a democratic model for the region. But shortly after winning reelection to a second presidential term in December, he complained of having no more power than the queen of England. Last month, he pushed through a referendum that broadly expanded presidential powers and set off alarms in Western capitals.
"In the long run, if you disrupt the balance of power, and you undermine society's support for what you're doing, you also open the door for a less benign person down the road to have absolute power in this country. No one is saying that they are worried about this man. But we are trying to be very careful all over the world in not investing our relationship in one individual," says one Western official.
Not settling for a simple majority
At least Akayev has run in a genuinely contested election. Meanwhile, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakstan along with leaders Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and Niyazov of Turkmenistan have all held referendums to extend their rule. One reason may be that, for Central Asian strongmen, a simple majority just won't do. One diplomat in the region recalls asking a government official why his boss won't face the opposition at the ballot box, where he could fairly win two-thirds of the vote. Not enough for a convincing victory, came the response.
The leaders have been no keener to take any chances with their followers, shuffling subordinates to fend off rivals. Turkmenistan's Niyazov reportedly goes so far as to pack the presidential jet with potential coup plotters whenever he travels out of the country.
Local and foreign observers say each Central Asian president represents the dominant alliance of clans and regions. Mr. Nazarbayev, for example, hails from the southern, ethnic Kazak part of Kazakstan that keeps in check the predominantly Russian northern areas. And all the Central Asian regimes have worked to tie their quarrelsome far-flung regions into a single unified nation.
Only Niyazov, however, has offered himself up as a national symbol. His birthday is celebrated as national Flag Day. The adoption of the Turkmenbashi name is a conscious imitation of Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern Turkey who called himself Ataturk - Father of Turks.
Respect for power
Other regional leaders have been content to base their authority on the bland appeals of modern nationalism. An incipient personality cult in Uzbekistan has been quashed by Karimov himself over the last two years. There is no need for overt propaganda, given the traditional respect that Central Asian societies accord to men in power.
"Whenever I change offices," says a businessman in the Uzbek city of Bukhara, "I leave behind everything but two things: the photo of my wife and daughter and this portrait of President Karimov. He is a tough man, a strong man, the kind of president we need at this stage. He holds everything together."
When that businessman complains of red tape, he lays the blame on middle-level bureaucrats - like many of the Central Asian elite, who are likely to finger anyone but the man at the top for their regimes' problems.
Flattery translates well into any language. Until recently, Turkmenistan's Turkmenbashi was the subject of numerous songs in Turkmen only. Then a supporter wrote one in English and was rewarded with an imported auto. The next day, local radio was flooded with Russian-language ditties praising the leader.
The Turkmen leader's style has become the butt of jokes among subjects and neighboring leaders. "I don't know how Turkmenbashi works, because he gets no feedback," says Kyrgyz leader Akayev. "All he gets is unqualified praise."