A PLANE flight away from the political chaos now roiling in Russia and a boat ride across the Caspian Sea from the ethnic wars that plague the Caucasus, the former Soviet Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan basks in sunny stability.
The tree-lined streets of Ashkhabad, a modest city of two- and three-story buildings, are clean and tranquil, with barely a hint of the menace that lurks on every Moscow corner. The Russian and Ukrainian wives of Army officers shopping in the market evince no fear of the majority Turkmens, a nomadic people who have roamed this desert land for centuries.
Aside from its traditional bazaars, there is no evidence in Turkmenistan of the free-market tumult of Russia's private shops and sidewalk kiosks. The drab state-run stores still operate here, offering a minimum of basic goods but at prices a tenth of those in Russia, subsidized by the revenues from Turkmenistan's rich reserves of oil and gas.
Presiding over this island of calm is the genial, round-faced President of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, one of a handful of Central Asian Communist leaders who have managed to survive the transition from the Soviet Union to independence. Under his rule, Turkmenistan is a curious cross between the Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev and an Arab sheikhdom in the Persian Gulf.
The Turkmen president arrived in the United States this week on an unofficial visit aimed at convincing American businessmen and politicians that his brand of slow economic reform without political democracy is working. Stung by charges that Turkmenistan's tiny opposition has been suppressed, Mr. Niyazov counters that the only alternative to his relatively benign authoritarianism is the kind of civil war that has torn apart the neighboring former Soviet republic of Tajikistan.
However a Western audience might respond to his claims, it was almost impossible to find anyone to demur in four days of travel around this sparsely populated expanse of sand dunes.
"No war and we have bread," says Rahman, a taxi driver in the city of Chardzhou, explaining why he supports Niyazov. "It's not like Tajikistan where they are shooting each other."
The price of stability is the absence of political pluralism. The Communist Party, which Niyazov headed since 1985, remains in place, having only changed its name to the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. Personality cult
A minor-league cult of personality is rapidly being built around the president. Niyazov's smiling visage, wavy silver hair in place, graces government offices and streetside billboards, spaces previously occupied by Communist slogans and pictures of Soviet leaders.
Also reminiscent of the Soviet era is the systematic suppression and harassment of the small opposition movement, Agzybirlik. US officials here say that Niyazov, in his Washington visit, will not be received by any senior Clinton administration official unless he gives permission for three activists to attend a human rights conference in Wisconsin.
"It's worse now than under the Brezhnev regime," says Mukhamedmurad Salamatov, editor of Dayanch, the only independent journal here and one of the three invitees. He has been tried three times, resulting in fines, for various alleged offenses. After several issues of his journal were published in Moscow but confiscated upon arrival here, "my experiment in a free press has finished," he says.
In a three-hour near-monologue with a small group of correspondents last week at his sandstone palace, Niyazov went to great lengths to defend himself against Western criticism.
"Why should I create something just so you can call me a democrat," he asks rhetorically. "The society is not yet ripe enough for creation of political parties," he adds, arguing that such changes must wait until economic reforms create a new class of private owners and a new generation free of the communist mentality. The Turkmen Constitution guarantees the right to private ownership of land, he notes.
"We have censorship," Niyazov says with disarming directness, "but not for the sake of crushing dissent. We don't want political strife." He contends that censorship is necessary to keep ethnic peace in a country whose 4 million population includes sizable minorities: According to the 1989 census, Russians make up almost 10 percent and Uzbeks, 9 percent. "It is enough to publish three articles for Russians to start fleeing from Turkmenistan," he says.
Niyazov's explanations are sometimes prone to lapses of logic. He challenges Westerners concerned about Turkmenistan's friendly ties to neighboring Iran to "travel around Turkmenistan and see if they can find any fundamentalism." But some time later, he warns that "the first party created will be an Islamic one if we just let everything go. They have structures from the villages up to the mosques." `Lost identity'
A strong leader is needed in this traditional nomadic society, organized in rival tribes without any real concept of a single, Turkmen nation, Niyazov argues. After being a colony of the Russian Empire in the late 19th century, followed by 70 years of Soviet rule, the Turkmens have lost their identity, he says.
Niyazov, putting his life-long Communist beliefs behind him, now carefully cultivates Turkmen nationalism. He decreed the 1879 and 1881 battles once celebrated as "voluntary unification" with Russia to be "the Turkmen people's patriotic war for independence."
Niyazov acknowledges that his personality cult resembles that of Joseph Stalin, but he is quick to contend that unlike the Soviet dictator, "I don't have a repressive apparatus." In eight years of his rule, no political arrests have been carried out, he claims.
Westerners who are basically sympathetic to Niyazov are otherwise frustrated by the efforts expended against a tiny opposition. "They kick themselves in the teeth all the time," says US Ambassador Joseph Hulings III. He believes the president would win a contested election. "He actually is a very popular and a skilled politician," Mr. Hulings says.
And while Niyazov has little use for Western-style democracy, he carefully listens to other opinions. In addition to a rubber-stamp parliament, he has formed several consultative councils, including a Council of Elders, similar to those that exist in some Gulf Arab states.
But Niyazov's most effective tool is to buy popularity with the revenues from Turkmenistan's gas exports pumped to Europe along with Russian gas. Since last June, Turkmenistan has been paid directly in hard currency, and its German bank account already amounts to $1 billion. Huge gas reserves
Instead of Russia's "shock therapy," the gas money is used to subsidize living standards through food imports and, since January, to provide free gas, electricity, and water to everyone. Gas revenues should yield $3 billion a year, and with the fourth largest reserves in the world, there is no end in sight. According to a study by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Turkmenistan, once one of the poorest Soviet republics, was in the best shape of any of them in 1992 and has the rosiest s hort-term outlook.
But Western observers such as Hulings are critical of using money for subsidies, which eat up more than half the budget, instead of investing in infrastructure. Hulings cautions against visions of Turkmenistan as a "second Kuwait," warning that unless they build an alternate pipeline to the West, ending dependence on a tenuous route through Russia and Ukraine, "they're in trouble."
Yet against the backdrop of problems elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, Turkmenistan's appeal can be compelling. Ludmilla Kirita, who has been here three years with her Russian Army officer husband, is not eager to go home. "Compared with Russia," she says standing in an Ashkhabad market, "it's better here.