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Turkmens to mark ‘era of happiness’

Associated Press

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (AP) – Turkmenistan’s authoritarian president is calling it a week of celebrations, but for some it might seem more like basic training, especially the march up the five-mile (eight-kilometer) concrete staircase.

The series of public shows and sports events will be held during the first week of April to mark the “era of power and happiness” recently announced by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, state newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan reported Friday.

Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkmenistan has become known for its grandiose authoritarianism, including the elaborate cult of personality that surrounded the late President Saparmurat Niyazov.

Berdymukhamedov has dismantled much of the personality cult since taking power after Niyazov’s 2006 death, but the overblown and idiosyncratic nature of the upcoming festivities echo Niyazov’s style.

The first week of April is traditionally devoted to public events celebrating physical well-being. The period has now been dubbed the “Week of Health and Happiness” and will include the staging of plays called “The Inspirational Era of Happiness” and “The Era of Power is Illuminated by Happiness.”

Turkmenistan doesn’t suffer problems like the United States, where two out of every three adults is overweight or obese. But the newspaper quoted Berdymukhamedov as saying in a Cabinet meeting Thursday that all employees in government offices and state companies will be expected to spend the week indulging in physical exercise.

The highlight of the week is expected to be the traditional mass march up the Walk of Health _ an eight-kilometer (five-mile) concrete staircase built into mountains near the capital.

While insisting on making top public officials complete the Walk of Health once a year, Niyazov was notable for his preference for less strenuous pleasures. He died of heart failure in December 2006, aged 66.

Niyazov drew widespread criticism in 2005 by closing provincial hospitals, declaring them an unnecessary extravagance. The policy was implemented while Berdymukhamedov was then serving as health minister.

Berdymukhamedov reversed that policy as president and actively promoted the building of several hospitals all over the country.

In an apparent effort to distance himself from Niyazov’s time in office, which was known officially as “The Golden Era,” Berdymukhamedov announced an “Era of Great Renaissance.” That has now given way to the current “Era of Power and Happiness.”

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