The demolition of the Neutrality Arch topped with a gilded statue of former Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov, known as Turkmenbashi, has started in the country's capital, Ashgabat, local media said on Thursday.
The 75-meter-high (246-feet-high) three-legged monument, located in the city center, has been Ashgabat's major tourist attraction since it was built in 1998 to commemorate the country's official position of neutrality. The arch dominates the skyline, being taller than the nearby Presidential Palace. The 12-meter-high (39-feet-high) gilded statue of Turkmenbashy on its top rotates to always face the sun.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, Niyazov's successor, signed a decree to dismantle the arch in January, which has been officially aimed at improving urban design in Ashgabat. However, the demolition is widely seen as part of the new president's campaign to remove the personality cult that Niyazov has created in the two decades of his rule.
The Turkmen authorities are planning to rebuild the monument on the outskirts of Ashgabat. The new monument is expected to be 20 meter taller than the demolished one, but it is not clear whether the statue of Turkmenbashi is also recreated.
Niyazov's self-given title Turkmenbashi, meaning Leader of Turkmens, refers to his position as the founder and president of the Association of Turkmens of the World. Turkmen media has referred to him using the title "His Excellency Saparmurat Niyazov Turkmenbashi", while western media criticized him as one of the world's most totalitarian and repressive dictators.
Niyazov was first secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party from 1985 and continued to lead Turkmenistan for 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, until his death in 2006.
AHGABAT, June 17 (RIA Novosti)