ASHGABAT-The Central Asian state of Turkmenistan claims to have achieved an important scientific breakthrough, asserting that it has succesfully completed a first human cloning experiment. "We are literally talking about 100 Gustav Ratzenhofers here," the country's new President announced in a strikingly outspoken interview.
In a country primarily famous for its recently deceased dictator and self-proclaimed 'father of the Turkmens', Saparmurat Niyazov, who closed the country off hermetically from any outside access or information, it is for now impossible to independently verify the claim.
The Turkmen Minister of Science, Vekhmud Makharaziyanovbekhelemivev, admits that the process yields as of yet imperfect results, with what he describes as "some insignificant random variation" occuring among the clones. But he nevertheless proclaimed completion of a first cloning stage "a resounding affirmation of the truth of the Rukhnama." The Rukhnama is the spiritual treatise penned by the late dictator, which replaced most school textbooks in 2001. The cloning programme was supposedly based on instructions outlined in the book.
"Look," President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov said in a telephonic interview with journalists in Moscow that itself marked a new style of politics in Ashgabat. "We understand your scepticism. Really, we do. You are allowed to express it freely, as long as you stay there. But we are not kidding. They are all alike."
"We are," he continued, refering to the only other Turkmen who has achieved some fame outside the country's borders as a cult icon of sorts, "literally talking about 100 Gustav Ratzenhofers here."
The photos that the Turkmen Department of Total Information and Access Restrictions sent out do indeed seem to show a gathering of dozens, if not hundreds, of Gustav Ratzenhofers. But scientists in the US have expressed disbelief. "From a US perspective," Professor Michael Carmichael of Dukes University said, "Gustav Ratzenhofer is indeed a character so unique that to even find someone remotely resembling of him suggests a cloning experiment gone wrong.
"But you do have to realise," he continued, "just how little we know about Turkmenistan. This is a country that has been shut off from the outside world completely for many years. We don't know just to what excesses of depravity the physical and psychological strangehold that Turkmenbashi held his people in has led.
"It could well be," he added with a sharp intake of breath, "that Turkmenbashi's psychoterror has led his people to regress into an unhinged and ragged physo-psychological state that in any case would resemble that of Gustav Ratzenhofer. Without any cloning experiment being involved."
Scary though he admitted this notion was, he said it was more likely than Turkmen scientists having trumped US, Japanese and European efforts.
The photo sent out by Turkmenistan to illustrate its cloning breakthrough.