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November 12, 2002

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A cult of personality, more outrageous than anywhere else, can be found in Turkmenistan. President Saparmurat Niyazov is the self proclaimed hero of all Turkmen and his motto, the official country slogan, is catchy: People, Nation, Me. In Ashgabat, over every building hang larger-than-life photos of the president - the serious leader, the fearless visionary, the friendly cotton farmer, the lovable father figure. He dyed his hair black and spent millions replacing all of the city's portraits to reflect this change. Presidential statues seem to stand on every block. Every note of currency shows his portrait. We walked around Ashgabat and gaped at this mind-numbing propaganda. We asked some Turkmen citizens how they felt about it and most of them said they don't notice it. It isn't wise to criticize the president, especially to foreigners, unless a person wants to be labeled as a 'burglar.' That's how the government imprisons dissidents: on trumped up charges of burglary or theft. This means Turkmenistan has an inordinately high amount of burglars per capita yet it has an unblemished democratic record - no political prisoners.