Saparmurat Niyazov, the wild and often wacky authoritation president of Turkmenistan has died suddenly, apparently of a heart attack. He was 66.
Niyazov,who preferred to be known as “Turkmenbashi” (leader of all Turkmen), has headed the former Soviet state since 1985, having been appointed leader of the country’s communist party well before the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the collapse, he presided over the creation of a cult of personality featuring Niyazov himself. Posters and statues of Turkmenbashi are to be found all over Turkmenistan – including a giant statue of him in the country’s capital, Ashgabat – that rotates so that his face is always toward the sun. He has built palaces for himself and family members and gone as far as to name the months of the year and days of the week after himself and his family members.
His collection of thoughts on Turkmen history and culture, the Ruhnama, is taught in all the schools and has been elevated, by Niyazov, to the status of the Koran. He has fired medical workers and replaced them with members of the military, closed libraries and decreed that college degrees from universities outside Turkmenistan would not be recognized. He has also banned the playing of recorded music in public – including on television and at weddings. All of this at the same time there has been virtually no social spending and much of the population lives in poverty. The press is completely censored and civil society barely exists. In 1999, the country’s parliament made him “president for life.” Opposition is not tolerated and security forces closely watch the activities of the population.
The country is rich in natural gas reserves which, together with cotton, are the main source of hard currency.
With Niyazov’s death coming so suddenly, it is going to be extremely interesting to see what happens in a country with no real process for succession. Given the country’s location – not to mention its energy resources – one can expect leaders in the West, Moscow and the Middle East will be watching carefully, and probably, trying to influence Turkmenistan’s future. There may also be implications for the other Central Asian states, with whom Niyazov’s relationships have ranged from indifferent to cool to sometimes prickly.