By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 22, 2006
MOSCOW, Dec. 21 -- Saparmurat Niyazov, who wove a bizarre and gilded cult of personality into dictatorial rule as president for life of the energy-rich former Soviet republic Turkmenistan, died early Thursday. He was 66 and had heart disease.
"Turkmenbashi the Great has died," said a news presenter on state television, using Mr. Niyazov's adopted moniker, which means "Leader of All Ethnic Turkmens." Mr. Niyazov dominated his country of 5 million people for more than 15 years, neglecting education and health care while using hundreds of millions of dollars from natural gas exports to build monuments to his glory.
With the outside world, Mr. Niyazov pursued a policy of "permanent neutrality," keeping the great powers at arm's length. He nonetheless allowed the United States to use his country's airspace to support military operations in neighboring Afghanistan.
His relations with Russia were strained, especially because he suppressed his country's ethnic Russians and their language and culture. But with one of the world's largest reserves of natural gas, Turkmenistan became closely bound to the Russian energy giant Gazprom, which controls the pipelines that deliver Turkmen gas to market.
Rumors that the portly Mr. Niyazov was in poor health had long circulated, but like everything else in Turkmenistan, where the government has a stranglehold on the news media, his true condition was a closely held secret. He underwent heart surgery in Germany in 1997 and has been treated by German specialists since then.
Under his rule, residents received water, electricity, natural gas and gasoline at subsidized prices. But despite huge earnings from energy exports, standards of living remained poor in the sparsely populated, mostly Muslim country, which is dominated by the Kara Kum Desert. This month, panic buying of bread broke out in the capital.
People were well supplied with images of Mr. Niyazov, however. These appeared on every piece of currency, on brands of tea and vodka, in the upper right-hand corner of broadcasts on national television.
He commissioned a gold-plated statue of himself in the center of Ashgabat, the capital, and it rotated with the sun so his heroic visage always caught the light. The 200-foot monument sits in a city-center where vast sums have been spent on white marble government buildings, fountains and sculpture.
Almost everyone in Turkmenistan, adults and children alike, was compelled to study Mr. Niyazov's two-volume "Book of Spirit" -- "Ruhnama" in Turkmen -- which contained his philosophical and historical ramblings. The country's libraries were all but emptied except for copies of "Ruhnama" and Mr. Niyazov's collections of poetry. At the same time, schoolchildren had no textbooks.
The government banned as alien such cultural institutions as the opera, the ballet and the philharmonic orchestra. An amusement park, the World of Turkmenbashi Tales, was opened outside the capital, however. Mr. Niyazov renamed some months of the year after himself and his dead mother.
Russian schools have been closed, and the use of the Russian language was suppressed as part of Mr. Niyazov's efforts to build a national identity in a tribal society that had never experienced independence before the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. Educated elites, particularly Russian-speakers, fled the country.
Human Rights Watch described Turkmenistan as "one of the most repressive and closed countries in the world."
Mr. Niyazov was born Feb. 19, 1940, but by age 8 he was orphaned. His father died in World War II, and the rest of his immediate family, including his mother, a carpet-maker, were killed in an earthquake that struck the capital in 1948, killing 100,000 people.
A bright student, Mr. Niyazov went on to study engineering in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, graduating in 1966. He was appointed first secretary of Turkmenistan's Communist Party in 1985 and in 1990 was elevated to president of the republic.
Like many former high-ranking party officials across the former Soviet Union, he not only survived the collapse of communism but held on to power. In 1992, he was elected president of the newly independent country, with an official tabulation of 99.5 percent of a vote that was widely derided as fraudulent.
By 1999, term limits for the president had been abolished, and in August 2002, the People's Council made him president for life.
An assassination attempt in 2002 provoked a harsh crackdown on any whisper of internal dissent. Mr. Niyazov increasingly fired ministers and senior officials. In the resulting atmosphere of fear, state structures began to break down because there was no one competent to run them, and people still in positions of nominal authority were afraid to make decisions.
Mr. Niyazov took to interrupting government meetings to read his poems aloud.
Survivors include a wife and two children, who spent most of their time out of the country. His wife and daughter were reportedly in London when he died.