Turkmenistan ends ban on opera and circus

ASHGABAT (Reuters) - Turkmenistan will end its seven-year ban on opera and the circus introduced by the Caspian nation’s former eccentric leader, state media reported.

Saparmurat Niyazov, who cultivated an elaborate personality cult during his 21-year rule, died in late 2006 of a heart attack. He banned opera, ballet and the circus, saying they are “alien” to Turkmen culture.

The new leader, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has sought to promote a softer image for the gas-rich nation bordering Iran -- and reversed some of Niyazov’s most eccentric policies.

Late on Sunday, state television announced his plans to reopen an opera house, resume circus shows and build a cinema in the capital Ashgabat.

“Today a new period is starting in our country which we have called an era of great renaissance,” Berdymukhamedov said in televised remarks, his speech interrupted by applause.

During his long rule, Niyazov took the title of Turkmenbashi (Head of the Turkmen) and had thousands of portraits and statues of himself put up throughout the country, including a statue in gold leaf that rotates to face the sun in Ashgabat.

Isolated from the rest of the world and criticized in the West for human rights violations, Turkmenistan has sought to end its isolationist policies under the new president and attract more foreign investment in its vast oil and natural gas sectors.

Reporting by Marat Gurt; Writing by Maria Golovnina