Turkmenbashi’s Death — Survey of Coverage

by Nathan Hamm on 12/21/2006

niazov.JPGTurkmenbashi is dead and about all we know for certain about Turkmenistan’s future is that there will be no New Year’s celebrations. Below is a survey of some of the reports on Niyazov’s death, but first check out the Turkmen government’s website, which has been switched over to a somber gray on black. [Update: It appears to have been switched back to its normal color and content scheme.]

BBC has an obituary, RFE/RL looks back at Turkmenbashi’s legacy as does the BBC, and RIA Novosti has one last “weird Turkmenbashi policies” hurrah. Condolences are coming in from Hamid Karzai, Kofi Annan, the OSCE, but not the EU.

Numerous news reports have noted that there is no designated successor for Turkmenbashi. Deputy Prime Minister Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has been named acting president, though under the constitution, that position should go to Mejlis speaker Ovezgeldy Atayev, who was not given the position because of a criminal case against. Also according to the constitution, the acting president cannot run for the permanent post, though one can safely assume that however this all shakes out, the constitution will play a minor role. Both Reuters and Guardian Unlimited report that the selection of Berdymukhamedov to head the commission planning Niyazov’s funeral may be, as was the case in the Soviet Union, an indication that he will stay on as president.

Financial Times has more on succession.

Despite Niyazov’s stress on Turkmen national identity, tribal and local loyalties continue to exert a strong pull in the country and are likely to be an important consideration in the political succession. Members of the opposition, most of who are in exile, have indicated the hope that they can return to the country, while attention is also likely to return to key political prisoners, such as the former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov. Leading figures in the Turkmen government – notably vice prime minister and minister of health Berdymukhamedov (who has been made acting president), minister of defence Mamedgel’diev or even foreign minister Meredov have all been mentioned as possible successors.

In a Eurasianet story, Dr. Murad Esenov says that he expects no big changes in Turkmenistan so long as there is stability. In the same story, ICG’s Michael Hall says that Niyazov’s death could herald in serious instability because no political institutions existed without him. This is echoed by others.

But Poletaev warned that the situation could also develop in a more negative direction. “There could be anarchy, as was seen after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Albania in the Nineties,” he said. “People have little confidence in each other because the Turkmenbashi [Niazov] system was based on poisoning the different clan groupings against each other. To keep Turkmenbashi happy, people were even prepared to denounce members of their immediate circle.”

According to Turkmenistan expert Mars Sariev, the role of regional elites is all the more important because there are no other institutions of civil society in place.

He thinks the Ahal regional grouping – to which Niazov belonged – is very likely to find itself in confrontation with the elite of Mary region in the southeast, which is economically powerful. “This struggle will stir up separatist tendencies among other regional elites, too, so a Yugoslav-style break-up is not to be ruled out,” said Sariev.

In the aforementioned Eurasianet story, Hall also noted the importance of control of the country’s natural resources in the struggle for succession.

“For so long, energy agreements have been signed directly with Niyazov, so there will be all sorts of questions about whether agreements signed will be valid or not,” he said, speaking from Bishkek. “If not, there will be an intensive scramble for control [of the resources.]”

It is quite clear that energy agreements are on plenty of minds outside of Turkmenistan. Russia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine all hope for continuity in post-Turkmenbashi Turkmenistan. Niyazov’s death also presents opportunities for Russia, which has had a rocky relationship with Turkmenistan.

Depending on whom you ask, international competition over the country will be dominated by various players. Stratfor sees Iran and Russia as the major competitors, and makes the bizarre suggestion that Iran would consider invading Turkmenistan. Anyhow, Iran and Russia are the only two countries that receive direct supplies of Turkmen natural gas, and it stands to reason that each will go to considerable lengths to secure a great degree of continuity in Turkmen policy. The smart money is on Russia, though. An RFE/RL interview covers other international players, noting that Germany’s EU presidency will probably give quite a bit more attention to Turkmenistan now that Niyazov is gone. For an overview of the competition set to unfold, see Alex Nicholson’s AP story.

For other good coverage, see:

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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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