Across Central Asia, they are a common sight: portraits glorifying each nation’s leader. Rising above the people on roadside billboards and taking pride of place on the walls of local government offices, visual tributes to the region’s sitting presidents outnumber internet cafes, independent newspapers and working bank machines. But Tajikistan President Emomali Rakhmon aims to change all that. He has issued a decree that all portraits depicting him with local politicians are to be torn down immediately.
It’s a strange move in a part of the world where leaders are none too shy about developing cults of personality. The late ruler of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov the self-titled Turkmenbashi, or Chief of all Turkmen erected a golden statue of himself that rotated with the sun, and renamed days and months after family members. In Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev has had not one but two museums built in his honor. During his presidency, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was featured in children’s books, his name was printed on women’s underwear and portraits of him in various guises as deep thinker, brave warrior and brawny fisherman graced the walls of Russia’s offices, businesses and schools.
Which makes Rakhmon’s sudden bout of modesty all the more puzzling. According to Russian news agency RIA Novosti, on May 15 local Tajik officials received phone calls from the president’s office playing a recorded address by Rakhmon in which he stated that from then on, they could only display portraits of him that had been given official approval: “In order to prevent the veneration of bureaucrats [and] eliminate misunderstandings among the public … the placement of portraits of the head of state in public places will be determined by the Office of the President of Tajikistan.” The directive says that all portraits and woven carpets that show local officials standing or sitting next to the president are to be removed from all offices, public places and roadsides. Grateful inscriptions to the leaders of cities and regions posted on historical monuments and gravestones are also to be removed.
But what the government is touting as an effort to tackle the obsession with celebrity, some observers say could simply be the president’s way of keeping local leaders from trying to up their status by basking in his reflected glory. Rakhmon, a former cotton farm boss whose prezident.tj website features nearly a dozen pictures of him on the homepage alone, led pro-communist forces against Islamist rebels during Tajikistan’s civil war in the 1990s and became leader of the nation in 1992, a year after independence. The nation’s longest-serving president, Rakhmon continues to command popular support, despite his rule being plagued by rampant corruption, vote rigging and unemployment that has forced around half of the male population to leave for Russia as guest workers. “Lately, people have been using pictures of the president to show off,” said journalist Dzhura Yusufi, in an interview on local Tajik television.
Although images of Rakhmon pictured alone will stay put, crews taking down images of local politicians standing or sitting next to the leader have their work cut out for them, with hundreds of enormous billboards casting shadows over roadways and blanketing buildings across the country. They might soon wish that all they had to do was pull down a rotating golden statue.
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