The sun is finally setting on a rotating gold statue that symbolised a bizarre personality cult around the former dictator of Turkmenistan.
The 40ft (12 metre) statue of the late Saparmurat Niyazov, the self-styled Turkmenbashi, or “Father of All Turkmen”, is being toppled under orders from his successor, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
The monument revolves on top of a 75 metre high Arch of Neutrality in the centre of the capital Ashgabat so that Niyazov always faces the Sun. It dominates the skyline and towers over nearby government buildings, including the nearby presidential palace.
The state newspaper said that Mr Berdymukhamedov had issued a decree for the statue and arch to be dismantled in March to “improve the architectural image of Ashgabat”. It said that an even bigger 95 metre monument to Turkmenistan’s neutrality policy would be built in a suburb, but made no mention of the gold statue.
The eccentric Niyazov, 66, ruled the former Soviet republic for 21 years before he died of heart failure in December 2006. Mr Berdymukhamedov has gradually erased many traces of his predecessor since he became President in 2007 but the statue was the most notorious symbol of Turkmenbashi’s legacy.
The figure with outstretched hands glistened constantly as it tracked the path of the Sun each day. At night, Niyazov was bathed in eerie lighting that made him appear to hover, Dracula-like, above the city.
The Arch of Neutrality, nicknamed the Tripod because of its three legs, has been a popular visitor attraction, however, because a viewing platform below the statue offers a panoramic view of Ashgabat.
Niyazov spent $12 million (£7 million) to erect the marble-covered arch in 1998. Turkmenistan has the world’s fourth-largest gas reserves and earns billions of pounds annually but its five million people lived largely in poverty as he splashed out on increasingly grandiose monuments to his own vanity.
Others included an ice palace and a 40-metre pyramid. Another monument celebrated the Rukhnama (Book of the Spirit), a collection of Niyazov’s philosophical ramblings that was compulsory reading in schools and even formed part of the driving test.
Mr Berdymukhademov scrapped Turkmenbashi’s most perverse decrees, which included renaming months of the year after members of his family, a ban on opera, ballet and circus performances, and making it illegal to play recorded music at weddings. He allowed limited access to the internet for the first time and reversed a law that reduced compulsory education by one year to make it impossible for students to qualify to study abroad.
He replaced banknotes that all featured Turkmenbashi’s face with new designs last year but has moved more slowly to deal with the statue, apparently aware of its significance. State television first announced that the Arch of Neutrality would be moved from the centre of Ashgabat almost a year ago but Mr Berdymukhamedov has only now issued the decree for work to start.
While he has won praise internationally for easing restrictions in a country once dubbed the North Korea of Central Asia, critics note that Mr Berdymukhamedov appears to be developing his own personality cult.
Giant portraits of him now hang on the outside of buildings that formerly showed pictures of Niyazov. The former dentist was also shown on live television last July performing an operation to remove a tumour from a patient’s ear at the opening of a new oncology centre.
“The statue was the most potent symbol of Niyazov’s regime. It was designed to make him look like a god,” said Alexei Malashenko, a specialist in Central Asian politics at Moscow’s Carnegie Centre. “But the removal is largely symbolic. Berdymukhamedov is ruling very much in the style of his mentor.”
We must support international calls to resist the re-writing by the despot Berdymukhademov, of Turkmenistan's glorious history under Turkmenbashi.
...unless he has plans to turn himself into an even crazier ruler, in which case - fine, carry on.