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ASHGABAT (Reuters Life!) - The circus came to town in Turkmenistan Friday...for the first time since the Central Asian nation's late leader banned the big top nine years ago.
Hundreds of children lined up outside a renovated Soviet-era arena in the capital Ashgabat for their first visit to the circus, a form of entertainment the eccentric autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov prohibited as "alien."
Niyazov, who ruled Turkmenistan for 21 years until his death in 2006, also banned the cinema, opera, ballet, lip-synching and even gold teeth.
His successor, President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has reversed those bans -- except for ballet. He took in the opening show at the circus Friday, hailing it earlier as a "state-level event."
Berdymukhamedov has launched market reforms and opened up the gas-rich nation's economy to foreign investors but has maintained the political system giving him unlimited powers.
Critics say he has also done little to strengthen human rights in the former Soviet republic, which has no opposition political parties or independent media. When it comes to arts, however, he has proved much more liberal than Niyazov.
Under Niyazov, entertainment was limited to concerts, bars and night clubs. Until this year, the only "cinemas" in Ashgabat were halls equipped with a large television set and a DVD player where viewers could vote to choose the movie.
Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; editing by Paul Casciato