Leader Creates Cult of Personality Painted in Oils

Portraits of Niyazov hang almost everywhere in a nation under one-man rule. Artist recalls good-old Soviet days.

Robert Shabunts has fond memories of the past, when commissions to paint the portraits of Communist Party bosses and Soviet heroes steadily streamed into his cramped studio in the House of Artists.

Today, considering Turkmenistan's seemingly insatiable appetite for portraits of President Saparmurat Niyazov - his face adorns every public building in this Central Asian republic - it would appear that Mr. Shabunts would have plenty of work. Instead, the artist is struggling to get by.

"Right after independence there was lots of work," Shabunts says, recalling the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. "But now every office already has a portrait, and the government has started buying photographs."

After Turkmenistan was unceremoniously flung out of Moscow's orbit seven years ago, Mr. Niyazov, the republic's former Communist Party boss, set about constructing a cult of personality that critics say rivals that of former Soviet dictator Stalin.

Shabunts, who says he has painted some 50 portraits of Niyazov, says the paintings and photographs go for the same price: about $250 a square yard.

In a country where per-capita income is little more than a medium-sized portrait of the president, critics say Niyazov's one-man rule has crippled democratic reform and economic growth.

In private, many Turkmens complain of the lack of freedom of expression and authoritarian business decisions. "The people are silent, they're scared," says a taxi driver. "If you say anything against our president, they'll lock you up."

Human Rights Watch has called Turkmenistan's government "one of the most repressive and abusive in the world." At the same time, the US agreed to conduct a $750,000 study for Caspian oil pipelines that would link Turkmenistan with Turkey. Niyazov stoutly defends Turkmenistan's "own way of political, social, and economic development" and denies the existence of political prisoners.

Artists like Shabunts will be unlikely to see the expected oil wealth. Many in the House of Artists have expanded their repertoires, selling old Lenin portraits to tourists and painting presidents of other countries. "You get tired of official portraits," Shabunts says. They're always the same."

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