Turkmenbashi Dies, But Impact for Turkmenistan Unclear
Known as Turkmenbashi ("The Great Head of the Turkmen People"), Niyazov, who ruled Turkmenistan for 21 years, died from cardiac arrest at 1:10am on December 21, according to an official statement released by Turkmenistan's State Security Council, government cabinet and parliament.
Unnamed sources within the government, however, told the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS that diabetes may have been "the possible cause" of the Turkmen leader's unexpected death. (Uncontrolled diabetes can lead to complications with the circulatory system. ) In 1997, Niyazov underwent coronary bypass surgery in Germany.
For now, though, the focus within Turkmenistan is on eulogizing Niyazov rather than on the exact cause of the longtime leader's death. "The glorious years during which the Great Serdar [Leader] ruled the Turkmen people confirmed his heavenly faculty to foresee and his ability to determine priorities," the Russian news agency Interfax reported the government's statement as saying. "His unique abilities in the art of leading the nation revealed his talent as a diplomat and [as] a wise and humane person."
Niyazov's funeral has been scheduled for December 24. The late president will be laid to rest in his family mausoleum in the village of Gypjak. The deputy chairman of Turkmenistan's Cabinet of Ministers, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, is overseeing preparations, according to television broadcasts.
An unnamed official from the Russian embassy in Ashgabat told the news agency RIA Novosti that the channel featured a black-framed portrait of the 66-year-old Niyazov as the announcer elaborated "what he has done for Turkmenistan and the international community."
For outside observers, whether the end of Niyazov's authoritarian rule will bring any change to Turkmenistan is the key question. Fear of reprisals has pushed political opposition members out of Turkmenistan, and the extent to which such individuals enjoy support within the country itself is unknown.
RIA Novosti reported former Deputy Prime Minister Khudaiberdy Orazov as saying that opposition leaders living abroad may meet "in the next few days to discuss the situation following the president's death."
"[F]or so long, Niyazov was, in effect, the state of Turkmenistan," commented Michael Hall, Central Asia project director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "The simple fact that this did happen so suddenly, and that there had been no clearly designated successor and the fact that there are really no political institutions that function independently of Niyazov could bring in a period of quite serious chaos and instability in the country."
As of now, however, Hall stressed, "it's very difficult to say . . . what could happen."
The likelihood of such instability means that the international community may prove cautious in its response to the Turkmen leader's death, argued Dr. Murad Esenov, the editor-in-chief of the Sweden-based Journal of Central Asia and the Caucasus and an ethnic Turkmen who has published widely about the country. " I don't see any big players pressuring for change as long as there is stability," he said. "They prefer stability in Turkmenistan."
Article 61 of the Turkmen constitution states that the chairman of parliament will take over the president's duties if "the President, for some reason, is not capable of meeting her or his obligations." New presidential elections "should be held within two months from the day when the chairman of Mejlis [parliament] takes over the president's duties."
Few details are known about the current chairman of Turkmenistan's parliament, Ovezgeldi Atayev. As is the case for all members of parliament, he held his position with Niyazov's blessing. The constitution, however, states that the person who steps in as acting president "cannot be nominated for the presidency."
"I see no dramatic change in the way the country
is run after the death of Niyazov," commented Esenov, who tapped Deputy Prime Minister Berdymukhammedov, in charge of arranging Niyazov's funeral, as "the strongest candidate" to be his successor.
The lack of reliable, independent information about Turkmenistan makes political prognoses largely a guessing game, however. In September 2006, the Washington, DC-based non-governmental organization Freedom House ranked the country as having one of the world's worst human rights records.
The country, which borders on Afghanistan and Iran, is of obvious strategic importance, though Niyazov's policy of neutrality represented in an arch in downtown Ashgabat means that outside alliances have been eschewed. In the months ahead, however, any instability in Turkmenistan could have effects on its neighbors, in particular, fellow post-Soviet state Uzbekistan, with which it shares a 1,621-kilometer border.
The outside world's interest in the oil and gas this Central Asian state can provide is one of the few indisputable facts. On December 18, just three days before his death, Niyazov met with European Union envoy to Central Asia Pierre Morel to discuss possibilities for transporting Turkmen gas to Europe, state television reported.
Niyazov, first elected president in 1990 when Turkmenistan was a Soviet republic, has overseen a rapid expansion of his country's energy industry, although, the late president's tight control over information makes estimates about the actual economic impact of that expansion largely a guessing game. Oil production has doubled since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a 2005 analysis by the United States Department of Energy says.
Citing the Oil and Gas Journal, the analysis put Turkmenistan's proven oil reserves at 546 million barrels, but noted that some estimates are still higher. As of 2004, the country had a production rate of 260,000 billion barrels per day; a statistic that Niyazov reportedly hoped to increase to 2 million bbld by 2020, according to the analysis.
Turkmenistan, which borders on Afghanistan and Iran, has some of the world's largest gas fields, though pipelines from the country are all controlled by Russian energy giant Gazprom. Here, too, after enduring a slump in the early post-Soviet period, official production rates have been steadily climbing. As of 2005, gas exports made up 47 percent of Turkmenistan's $4.7 billion in exports, and oil 34 percent, according to the US Department of State.
In the long run, control of access to Turkmenistan's energy resources could determine who is left in control of the country itself, noted the International Crisis Group's Michael Hall.
"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.]"
The signs of that energy wealth are present throughout the country's capital, Ashgabad, which, along with other gargantuan state tributes, features a revolving gold statue of Niyazov, as well as a recently opened 54-ride amusement park ("The World of Turkmenbashi Tales") designed to enhance children's appreciation of Turkmenistan's history and culture. The late president, a former electrical engineer, has also penned a spiritual guide to Turkmenistan's history, the Ruhnama, which he asserted would guarantee entrance to heaven for anyone who read the tome aloud three times. The book has become required reading.
For now, no suggestion exists that the successor government will challenge that or any other aspect of Niyazov's all-encompassing personality cult. In its official statement on Niyazov's death, the government asserted that "The people of Turkmenistan will continue to pursue the political course of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi at this difficult moment."
With reporting by Mevlut Katik.