Thu 21 Dec, 2006 12:18 pm
Turkmenistan's 'iron ruler' dies
Turkmenistan's authoritarian president Saparmurat Niyazov, who ruled the Central Asian country for 21 years, has died aged 66, state TV has reported.
Mr Niyazov, who named cities and airports after himself in a personality cult, left no designated successor.
Turkmenistan, which has large gas reserves, now faces an uncertain future with rival groups and outside powers scrambling for influence, analysts say.
Mr Niyazov died at 0110 local time (2010 GMT Wednesday) of a heart attack.
Last month, the president publicly acknowledged he had heart disease.
His funeral is set to take place on 24 December in the capital, Ashgabat.
BBC correspondents quote witnesses as saying the capital has been quiet since the news broke, with many people staying at home, shocked and unsure of what may happen next.
Deputy Prime Minister Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has been named head of the commission handling the funeral, state television said.
According to Turkmen law, the president is succeeded by the head of the legislative body, the People's Assembly. But this post was held by Mr Niyazov himself.
Turkmenistan has called an emergency meeting of its highest representative body for 26 December to decide on Mr Niyazov's succession, the government said.
Mr Berdymukhamedov has also been named acting head of state until then, according to government sources.
The cabinet of ministers and the National Security Council in Turkmenistan have held emergency sessions to discuss the situation.
It would be nice if this marked a change for the better, but from what little I know that's probably pretty unlikely...?
Hard to tell. Niyazov has been leader of the country for more than two decades, and the political elite (or what existed before he became "Father of the Turkmen") has been eliminated. More or less.
The political structures that do exist are just pretty names for the fact that Turkmenbashi was the state.
From today's The Guardian
(online version, photos from the printed edition, page 3)
Bizarre, brutal and self-obsessed. Now time's up for Turkmenistan's dictator
· President who craved adulation dies at 66
· Uncertain future could hinge on huge gas reserves
Tom Parfitt in Moscow
Friday December 22, 2006
He outlawed opera, ballet and men listening to car radios. He decreed that the month of January should be named after him and April after his mother. He published a book of his spiritual thoughts that became required reading not only in schools, but for all those wishing to pass their driving test.
Even for central Asia, the absolute rule of Sapurmurat Niyazov was colourful.
But if life under Turkmenistan's dictator was dangerous and bizarre in equal quantities, the sudden release from his 21-year grip on power yesterday left a gaping vacuum in a land with the world's fifth largest reserves of natural gas.
Soon after Niyazov died of a heart attack at the age of 66, Turkmenistan's armed forces were put on high alert and border crossing points were closed. State television showed musicians sawing on violins and a week of mourning was announced. New Year celebrations were cancelled and black tape was hung outside Turkmen embassies abroad.
The government urged the country to "be calm and brave" and unite further to overcome with dignity the severe ordeal which had befallen it and "continue honourably the deeds of the national leader".
There is no obvious successor to the man who forced his impoverished people to call him the Turkmenbashi - "the leader of all Turkmens", because he ensured that no one in his close circle could establish a power base.
But events in Turkmenistan will be of supreme interest to Moscow, China and the west. The country pipes huge quantities of natural gas to Russia's Gazprom and is a key player in Moscow's policy of using its position as a monopoly supplier of energy for political ends. Much of Europe's natural gas starts in this central Asian desert state.
"The situation now will be similar to that in the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin," said Konstantin Zatulin, head of Moscow's Institute of CIS Studies. "At first the leadership gets together to show its unity and then internal conflicts begin."
Opposition politicians who live in exile in Scandinavia, Russia and Turkey, including former foreign minister Avdi Kuliev, announced plans to return home last night. However, it remained unclear whether anti-regime figures, who have been ostracised for years, would be allowed in the country. "A group intends to return but there are criminal cases still open against many opposition figures," said Farkhad Ilyasov, an activist in Moscow. Turkmenistan's foreign ministry refused to comment. "We can't talk, we are in mourning," said a spokesman.
During his rule Niyazov turned his country into a hymn of praise to himself. He erected numerous monuments in his honour, including a revolving gold statue in the capital, Ashgabat. Giant billboards of the leader hang all over, although he often feigned embarrassment at the adulation. "I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets - but it's what the people want," he once said.
But the pressure to worship the leader was relentless. Children were forced to learn his book of poetry, the Ruhnama, at school, and a copy of the book was sent into space for good measure.
Official propaganda had it that Turkmenbashi brought his people into a new "golden age", but in reality they were held in almost total isolation and political dissent was crushed. Niyazov used an alleged assassination attempt in 2002 - thought by many to be fabricated - as an excuse to crack down on opponents, who were imprisoned and interned.
The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights called yesterday for scores of political prisoners to be released following the dictator's death. Executive director, Aaron Rhodes, said: "Niyazov turned Turkmenistan into a bizarre totalitarian state, a place sinking into a desperate and sick existence. Now there is a chance to introduce a real democracy."
Niyazov came to power in 1985 as first secretary of the Turkmen Communist party. After the Soviet collapse six years later he was elected president and in 1999 was made president for life.
Deputy prime minister Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was named yesterday as acting president. No date has been set for a presidential election. Analysts predicted a succession battle that would see the likes of Russia and China trying to exert influence to preserve energy supplies.
Mr Zatulin said: "There are two main dangers: an attempt to preserve the political structure where natural rights and freedoms are denied, and the risk of a fall into bloodshed, carnage and civil war."
A dictator's decrees
Ordered the building of a palace made of ice to accommodate up to 1,000 people in the Turkmen desert
Built numerous monuments to himself including a gold-plated statue that rotates to face the sun at all times
Plastered his own image on carpets, vodka bottles, watches and launched his own brand of perfume. When he dyed his hair black, he made it illegal to own watches which showed him with grey hair
Banned opera and ballet, long hair or beards for men and the playing of recorded music at any public event
Published a book of spiritual musings or "vessel of knowledge, wisdom and sound thought", the Ruhnama, and introduced it into the country's legal code
Changed the name of January to Turkmenbashi, and the name of April to that of his mother
Closed all hospitals except those in the capital, Ashgabat
Decreed the building of a desert zoo host penguins among others
Urged young people not to get gold dentures saying: "Those of you whose teeth have fallen out did not gnaw on bones. This is my advice."