Turkmen President Niyazov Dies at 66

The Associated Press
Thursday, December 21, 2006; 1:28 PM

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan -- President Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan's eccentric and iron-fisted leader who created a lavish cult of personality during two decades of rule over his isolated nation, died Thursday. He was 66.

A terse report from state television said Niyazov died early Thursday of heart failure and showed a black-framed portrait of the man who had ordered citizens to refer to him as "Turkmenbashi" _ the Father of All Turkmen. An announcer in a dark suit read a list of the accomplishments of Niyazov, who in life had been treated as a demigod by the state.

The funeral is to be held Sunday in his hometown of Kipchak, where Niyazov built Central Asia's largest mosque, called "Spirit of Turkmenbashi," at a reported cost of more than $100 million.

In the capital Ashgabat, dotted by golden statues of Niyazov, liquor stores were ordered closed and workers removed New Year's trees and other holiday decorations _ remnants of Turkmenistan's days as an outpost of the Soviet Union, which promoted New Years' celebrations over religious holidays.

Pedestrians appeared quiet and stunned about the death of the man whose musings, in his collected works, were required reading for school children. Most refused to comment to a reporter _ a legacy, perhaps, of the government's efforts to stifle independent expression.

Asked why he was closing his doors, one shop owner said simply: "An order is an order. Turkmenbashi has died."

Niyazov's image was immortalized in a 9,700-square-foot carpet titled "The 21st Century: The Epoch of the Great Saparmurat Turkmenbashi." He also renamed the months of the year, including January after himself and April after his mother.

"What a sorrow has fallen on the Turkmen people," said one woman, who declined to give her name.

Turkmenistan's State Security Council named Deputy Prime Minister Kurbanguli Berdymukhamedov the acting president, even though the constitution required Parliament Speaker Overzgeldy Atayev to take over as acting head of state.

The council said the Prosecutor General's office has opened a criminal investigation against Atayev, making him ineligible to fill in as president. The move could herald a battle for succession between rival groups.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov voiced hope that the transfer of power would take place lawfully. Russia is the sole transit route for Turkmenistan's vast gas resources, and it would be interested in preserving the status quo.

The Bush administration, which drew on Niyazov's support for U.S. military operations in neighboring Afghanistan, expressed condolences.

"We look forward to continuing to expand our relations with Turkmenistan, to a bright future for that country and to a government that provides justice and opportunity for its people," said Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman.

Turkmenistan's security council declared a seven-day national mourning period, urging citizens to "unite for the sake of our homeland's peace and prosperity."

Niyazov underwent major heart surgery in Germany in 1997 and last month publicly acknowledged that he had heart disease. But he did not seem seriously ill. Two weeks ago he appeared in public to formally open an amusement park named after him outside the capital.

Niyazov had led the desert nation since 1985, when it was still a Soviet republic. After the 1991 Soviet collapse and independence, he retained control and started to build an elaborate personality cult.

Among Niyazov's decrees were bans on lip-synching, car radios and the playing of recorded music at weddings. He once ordered doctors to stop taking the Hippocratic Oath and swear allegiance to him instead.

His image was everywhere, including Ashgabat's central square, where a soaring golden statue rotated so Niyazov's likeness would always face the sun. He is listed as the author of the "Rukhnama" (Book of the Soul) that was required reading in schools, where children pledged allegiance to him every morning.

Earlier this year, Niyazov announced he would provide citizens with natural gas and power free of charge through 2030.

But he has also tapped the country's vast energy wealth for outlandish projects _ a huge, man-made lake in the Kara Kum desert, a vast cypress forest to change the desert climate, an ice palace outside the capital, a ski resort and a 130-foot pyramid.

Niyazov's death, after two decades of wielding enormous power, raised concerns about whether political instability would follow.

"His death means a terrible shock for the republic, its residents and the political class," Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Moscow-based Politika think tank, told the RIA-Novosti news agency. "It's comparable to a shock the Soviet Union felt after Stalin's death."

The agency also quoted Khudaiberdy Orazov, a leader of Turkmenistan's hard-pressed opposition, as saying he and other opponents of Niyazov's regime will meet soon to plan their next moves.

In 2002, an alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov prompted a crackdown, leading to dozens of arrests.

A former foreign minister, Boris Shikhmuradov, was named as the mastermind of the alleged plot and sentenced to life in prison after a Stalinist-style show trial broadcast on TV. During the trial, prosecutors played a tape in which Shikhmuadov confessed he was a drug addict and hired mercenaries for the attack while living in Russia.

Turkmenistan _ a majority Muslim country dominated by the vast Kara Kum desert _ has the world's fifth-largest natural gas reserves, but Niyazov failed to convert that wealth into prosperity for his country's 5 million people.

Niyazov was born Feb. 19, 1940. His father died in World War II and the rest of his family was killed in an earthquake that leveled Ashgabat in 1948. He was raised in an orphanage and later in the home of distant relatives.

He was elected president of the newly independent Turkmenistan in 1992 with a reported 99.5 percent of the vote. In 1994, a reported 99.9 percent of voters supported a referendum allowing him to remain in office for a second five-year term without new elections.

Niyazov effectively became Turkmenistan's permanent ruler in 1999, after parliament removed all term limits. But an August 2002 gathering of the country's People's Council _ a hand-picked assembly of Niyazov loyalists _ nonetheless went further and endorsed him as president for life.

Under his rule, Turkmenistan adopted a strict policy of neutrality and spurned joining regional security or economic organizations created in the wake of the Soviet collapse.

Niyazov also pursued strong nationalistic policies. He encouraged the use of the Turkmen language over Russian and banned access to Russian-language media, driving away some of the country's most educated citizens and decimating its school system.

Secondary education in the country has been reduced to a required nine years, causing human rights groups to complain of a deliberate attempt to dumb down the population to prevent dissent.

© 2006 The Associated Press