DUSHANBE, Tajikistan — On Dec. 26 2006, the world lost its last old-school dictator. The eccentric rule of Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenbashi ("head of all Turkmen") the Great and President-for-Life, was Turkmenistan's national obsession, blending benevolence (he banned smoking and the death penalty), state terrorism (political rivals bearing fresh torture scars confessed to all manner of perversion before vanishing) and megalomania (his scattered memoir-cum-quasi-religious manifesto, the Ruhnama, was the only book on the curriculum of Turkmen primary schools and universities).
Niyazov's excesses epitomized the tragedy of the Central Asian republics. All but one are ruled by corrupt, iron-fisted Soviet-era party bosses who funneled their nations' natural resources into numbered offshore accounts while their people suffered desperate poverty and political repression.
Turkmenbashi's successor has taken tentative steps to lead Turkmenistan toward rationality, restoring Internet access and reopening medical clinics. A few hundred miles east, however, Emomalii Rahmon is feverishly constructing a cult of personality to rival the dead Turkmen tyrant's.
Previously the colorless leader of Central Asia's poorest and most remote republic, Rahmonov—he recently dropped the Slavic "ov" suffix as part of a nationalist campaign to erase lingering Russian influence—is subjecting mountainous Tajikistan to bizarre edicts and egomaniacal rants that recall the deceased Turkmenbashi.
Call him Tajikmanbashi.
Tajikistan is an odd place even by the standards of exotic Central Asia. Unlike the other "stans," its dominant ethnic group is Persian, not Turkic. You'd think there'd be nothing to fight over—Tajikistan doesn't have oil or gas—yet it disintegrated into civil conflict after the Soviets left. In 1997, after at least 100,000 Tajiks had died, the factions formed a fragile unity government under Rahmon and invited the Russians back. Today, the Russian unit assigned to patrol Tajikistan's border with northern Afghanistan still calls itself Soviet.
Life has been loopy since 1991. Old Soviet-era statues vanish and reappear without explanation. When castings of Efim Shatalov and Nikolay Tomin, Red Army generals who brought Tajikistan into the Soviet fold during the 1920s, disappeared from the streets of Kulob recently, it prompted a betting pool over their immediate and long-term fates. President Rahmon is ramping up the weirdness.
First, the leader of this anarchic, high-altitude refuge of Afghan opium smugglers and Taliban-trained Islamist guerrillas went after schoolchildren, simultaneously banning miniskirts and headscarves as symbols of secular and Islamic excess. Students are are not allowed to drive to school or carry cell phones.
Then he announced a campaign against conspicuous consumption by Tajiks "for the sake of progress, prosperity and the prestige of the nation" and to reduce poverty. The anti-extravagance campaign has since gone into overdrive. Gold fillings, ubiquitous relics of Soviet-era dental care, have been banned as ostentatious. The number of guests at private events, Rahmon announced recently, would be subject to legal limits: 200 at weddings, 100 at funerals and 60 at circumcision ceremonies.
"Often such events, which are mainly held by state officials, businessmen and religious figures, resemble competitions," he said.
Noting that wedding guest lists can hit the 1,000 mark, Rahmon claimed that 500,000 cows and sheep had been slaughtered in the small country during 2006, at a total cost of $1.2 billion, or 50 percent of the Tajik GDP. (This is almost certainly false.) Another provision of Rahmon's anti-consumption drive makes it illegal to serve food at weddings or burial ceremonies. There's also a strict new four-car limit at weddings.
Micromanaging the minutiae of citizens' daily lives, a hallmark of totalitarian regimes, was characteristic of the Turkmen government under Niyazov. As images of his face proliferated on billboards, the national currency and even a brand of vodka, Turkmenbashi banned music and beards. In the six months since Niyazov's death, Rahmon appears to be taking Tajikistan down the same road, into increased isolation.
Rahmon has written a series of books that have become the core curricula of Tajik schools. Tajikistan in the Mirror of History (2006), the latest volume, is described as a "spiritual present to the nation of Tajikistan from the head of the state."
"The subject matter and style of Rahmon's tomes have prompted comparisons to the Ruhnama, the spiritual guide of the deceased despot of Turkmenistan," reports EurasiaNet.
As with Niyazov, the Western news media will almost certainly find Rahmon's excesses amusing (should it ever take notice). However, Rahmon's emerging personality cult is serious business. Not only is his country enjoying increased geopolitical importance (due to its control of water sources that feed oil-rich states like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and its use as a staging ground by Iran and China), it's home to 7 million people who deserve better.
Ted Rall is the author of the new book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.