Turkmenistan’s cult leader-president dies. Future of country unclear.

by Bertrand on 12/21/2006 · 10 comments

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.

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Ataman Rakin December 21, 2006 at 2:10 am


“Every self will taste death. You will be paid your wages in full on the Day of Resurrection. Anyone who is distanced from the Fire and admitted to the Garden has triumphed. The life of the world is just the enjoyment of delusion. (Qu’ran al-Kerim, Surah Al ‘Imran: 185)”

Well, however, I would really not be surprised if he enacted it as well as his coming resurrection. πŸ™‚ Either case, the one who will weep most is his favorite marble palace contractor Bouygues (http://www.bouygues.fr/fr/index.asp) I think… LOL πŸ™‚

The most interesting question now is: what, and who, next for Turkmenistan for he was the state apparatus and regime. IMO, at present, that can be everything from a ‘Somalia light’ kind of state implosion to a surprisingly smooth, Putin-like succession by someone who was already behind the screens (in that respect, the actual position and role of his son Marat was always a very shady matter; but it can also be someone else).

Let’s see.

Nathan December 21, 2006 at 7:10 am

Holy. Freakin’. Crap.

This will be interesting. And I agree that Bouygues will probably shed the most tears. And German doctors…

Brian II December 21, 2006 at 7:32 am

Yeah, this is huge on many fronts. Some people are already discussing ‘returning home…’, not to mention the reactions with the neighbors to the north, east and south…

No matter what Lavrov & US Embassy say about ‘smooth, lawful transition’ there are some serious gaps (as the BBC pointed out, hysterically) in the constitutional law in TK, that will impact the next two months. I can’t reconcile this feeling of euphoria with the sad truth that this could be really messy…I mean, for those of us that had traveled to Ashgabat, this guy was certifiably nuts and scared the hell out of his entire population…but what follows in such a power vacuum? Stay tuned…

Sara December 21, 2006 at 8:09 am

As my my friend Raihon pointed out (Nathan, did you meet her?), Bashi put anyone with potential leadership ability in prison. So none of those people will be eligible for the presidency as they have a criminal record.

I still have to process this, I really thought he was going to be one of those whack-jobs that live forever.

Dennis December 21, 2006 at 8:16 am

I spoke with a friend of mine on the phone who’s just returned to Ashgabat for Christmas break. He indicated that the airport was closed to incoming traffic, including the BA plane that has his lost suitcase on it.

I was planning on flying back home to Turkmenistan with him in May after the semester was over, I wonder if this will be safe/viable.

Brian December 21, 2006 at 9:38 am

Oh my God! This is huge.

And if anyone mentions IFIs/IMF etc, I’m going to want to slap them.

Katy December 21, 2006 at 12:31 pm

Hip hip hoorah!

Katy December 21, 2006 at 12:44 pm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saparmurat_Niyazov Wikipedia is doing a good job of updating….

Matt December 21, 2006 at 12:58 pm

Looks like the Health Minister, Berdymukhamedov, has launched a power grab. The designated successor, the speaker of parliament, is out of his job following criminal charges…seems like a Niyazov styled sacking to me. And why has the actual Prime Minister not taken over? Berdymukhamedov is looking like he could be just as ruthless as his predeccesor so far.

Expect some major trouble…the other parties jockeying for power arent going to tolerate living under subordination a second time around. First Central Asian military coup anyone?

Ataman Rakin December 21, 2006 at 1:27 pm

Yes and also expect Elvis and UFO stories to mushroom soon… style Niyazov-is-not- dead-at-all but retired in a mansion in Dubai or has been seen in a petrol station near Novosibirsk. LOL πŸ™‚ You had those also about Kyrgyz don Rypsbek after he was shot.

Matt, IMHO a military coup is unlikely because the regular army is not a big deal in Turkmenistan. The main components of Niyazov’s repression apparatus are/were a) the neo-KGB and b) the Presidential Guard which also occasionally serves a as a death squad. There might be coup plotting in the neo-KGB, yes.

This is the reason why I think that the Niyazov/North Korea comparison doesn’t add up. It may be sexy in the press, and the grotesque personality cult is indeed very similar, yet there are fundamental differences: a) in North Korea, the Communist Party apparatus and its sub-organisations are very developed and all-present (not so in Turkmenistan where the presidential party is basically an empty shell); b) the military are huge and have a lot of political-economic weight in North Korea which is not the case in Turkmenistan.

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