NIYAZOV’S DEATH AND AFTERWARDS

NIYAZOV DIES AT 66

Niyazov died suddenly on December 21, 2006 at the age of 66. Associated Press reported: “A terse report from state television said Niyazov died 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.[Source: Associated Press, December 21, 2006 *^*]

“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... 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... Pedestrians appeared quiet and stunned about the death .... 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." "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. *^*

“Niyazov underwent major heart surgery in Germany in 1997 and a month before his death 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 Ashgabat. *^*

“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. Exiled opposition activists said they intended to try to return home. "Our first task is to return to Turkmenistan within hours. We are discussing now how to do it. In Turkmenistan there is no opposition, they all sit in prisons or under home arrest. But outside the country opposition exists and it is coming back," said Parakhad Yklymov by telephone from Sweden.” *^*

Reuters reported: “Restaurants were closed across Ashgabat for seven days of national mourning, but there were no public displays of grief. People, while reluctant to talk openly, worried about the future. "I was first shocked, then dazed, then I just stopped caring," said Aina, a 35-year-old woman working at a local market. "We just have to see what happens next." [Source: Marat Gurt, Reuters, December 22, 2006]

Thousands Mourn Death of Turkmen President for Life

Reporting from Ashkhabad, Michael Steen and Marat Gurt of Reuters wrote: “Turkmenistan's autocratic leader, Saparmurad Niyazov, was buried in a ceremony reminiscent of the grand funerals of the Soviet era. From early morning, tens of thousands of mourners, some weeping and some holding flowers, moved slowly past the open coffin placed in a marble, colonnaded hall at Niyazov's palace, topped by a gilded dome. A military orchestra played mournful music from a Soviet-era Turkmen film about unfulfilled love. Turkmens lined up orderly and streamed past a tall, gilded statue of Niyazov that rotates to face the sun. [Source: Michael Steen and Marat Gurt, Reuters, December 25, 2006 |*|]

“Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and Alexei Miller, CEO of the state-owned gas giant Gazprom, also attended the funeral. Armored vehicles and a black Mercedes carrying a huge portrait of Niyazov escorted the coffin to Kipchak, his home town west of Ashkhabad, the capital. Heavy clouds hanging over Ashgabat since Niyazov's death gave way to sunshine as his body, wrapped in a green national flag, was lowered into a grave in a family mausoleum near a vast marble mosque. |*|

“Six fighters flew low over the site in a deafening roar. Niyazov crushed dissent, jailed critics and controlled every aspect of people's lives. But many Turkmens fear a future without him."I am really scared," said Olga, an ethnic Russian in her 50s, who declined to give her last name. "The future of Turkmenistan is unclear after President Niyazov's death." |*|

Niyazov was buried in his home village of Kipchak, next to his parents. The BBC reported: “Niyazov's funeral is taking place amid tight security. Turkmens filed past Mr Niyazov's body as it lay in state in the presidential palace in the capital, Ashgabat. A tank carried Mr Niyazov's coffin away from the presidential palace and to the village of his birth outside Ashgabat, where he will be buried. Earlier, some of the thousands of people who came to pay their respects appeared grief-stricken by the death of their leader. Many bowed and carried flowers, and some people wept openly as they approached his coffin. Flags in Turkmenistan are flying at half-mast for the funeral, shops and restaurants are closed and New Year celebrations have been cancelled. [Source: BBC, December 24, 2006]

Power Vacuum After Niyazov’s Death

Niyazov left no successor and no apparent game plan for the transfer of political power after his death. "The country lives behind an iron curtain, and nobody knows what to expect now that Niyazov has suddenly left the scene," Andrei Grozin, an expert with the official Institute of Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow, told the Christian Science Monitor. "We might see a military coup, or an extended period of clashes among the elite," he adds.[Source: Fred Weir, Christian Science Monitor. December 22, 2006 \^/]

Fred Weir wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: “Solemn news broadcasts throughout the day on Turkmen state TV announced that "Turkmenbashi the Great" had died of cardiac arrest, but offered few indications of what may lie ahead for the isolated desert nation of 5 million people. "The internal and external policies proclaimed earlier will be continued further," the broadcasts said. "The nation must remain united and unshaken." \^/

“Niyazov left no designated heir, but the country's constitution stipulates that the chairman of the Mejlis (parliament) should take over temporarily if the president is incapacitated. But in a signal that a power struggle may already be under way, Russian news agencies report that the current Mejlis chairman, Ovezgeldy Katayev, is facing unspecified "criminal proceedings," and his place will be taken by Deputy Prime Minister Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. \^/

“Mr. Berdymukhamedov is widely rumored to be Niyazov's illegitimate son, though even usually well-informed Russian experts say they know little about him. "Basically, there is no predictable script for a power transfer in Turkmenistan," says Arkady Dubnov, an expert with the daily Vremya Novostei in Moscow. "All the potential contenders for power are either dead, in prison, or in exile." \^/

Niyazov's iron-fisted rule over his own people was often described as "pharaonic," due to his absolutism and love of building huge monuments in his own honor. He was derided by critics – all of them abroad – for naming months of the year after himself and his mother, and placing a giant gold-plated statue of himself atop the highest building in the capital Ashgabad. "For younger Turkmen, who have known nothing but Niyazov's rule and its rigorous propaganda, his end will come as a major tragedy like the death of [Joseph] Stalin was for a generation of Soviet people," says Mr. Grozin. "Older people, who remember a relatively more free time, will probably watch and wait to see what happens next." \^/

Power Struggle After Niyazov’s Death

Marat Gurt of Reuters wrote: “In a first sign that a succession battle was under way, security forces led by Defense Minister Agageldy Mamedgeldyev set up a special Security Council naming Deputy Prime Minister Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov as acting head of state. The move violated the constitution, which requires the parliament chairman to take over. Government statements did not say who else was on the Council. [Source: Marat Gurt, Reuters, December 22, 2006 <^> ]

“Berdymukhamedov, also health minister, is seen as a transition figure. He looked solemn when he appeared before his nation for the first time on television, showering lavish praise on "Saparmurat Turkmenbashi (Head of the Turkmen) the Great". Seated in a gilded chair with a photograph of Niyazov above him, Berdymukhamedov, 49, said: "Everything will be done according to a mechanism put in order by (Niyazov)." "Turkmenistan will always to faithful to the legacy and instructions of its great leader and will finish all the deeds he embarked on." <^>

“The government scheduled December 26 for the country's top representative body to meet to decide on the succession and set a date for elections. But there is no certainty that this will be the last word on who succeeds Niyazov in the long term. Turkmenistan has never held an election judged fair by Western monitors. <^>

Peter Finn wrote in Washington Post, “Early signs of internal discord were evident in an official announcement that the speaker of the parliament's lower house, who under constitutional rules should have become acting president, had been placed under criminal investigation. The strategic competition known as the Great Game that bedeviled Central Asia more than a century ago may get a rerun as Western-oriented and exiled opposition leaders return to Turkmenistan and jostle with Russian surrogates for power in the vacuum left by Niyazov's death. Complicating the mix are tribal politics and the loyalties of the powerful security services. [Source: Peter Finn, Washington Post, December 22, 2006 *~*]

“The Niyazov government was dominated by the Akhal Teke tribe, but the desert country's major gas fields lie in areas dominated by other tribes. Tensions over distribution of power and benefits from the sales never surfaced because Niyazov maintained an internal security cocoon that smothered any dissent. After the death was announced, the military was put on heightened alert, but there were no signs of increased military or police presence in the city. "A familiar Soviet model of transferring power will be attempted," said Sergei Panarin, a professor at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. "Already we saw this statement about the head of funeral commission. That's a sign. A very Soviet sign. But the question is open whether that person can hold on to power." *~*

“Berdymukhammedov was chosen over the constitutionally designated successor, Ovezgeldy Atayev, speaker of the lower house. Official news media gave no details about the alleged criminal investigation that the country's prosecutor had opened against him. He may well prove to be a temporary figure as other forces, particularly the security services, make their choice, analysts said.” *~*

Turkmenistan Security Services Poised to Seized Power?

Some felt the death of Niyazov left the way open for security forces to seize power. Oleg Shchedrov of Reuters wrote: “All analysts ruled out any kind of pro-democracy upheaval, akin to events in ex-Soviet Georgia and Ukraine, after years of purges and the imposition of an often bizarre personality cult. "For several years, Niyazov has been regularly purging the elite. On average, ministers stayed in office for six months and then were sacked or sent to jail," said Andrei Grozin of the CIS Institute think tank. "All major figures have been exterminated and the national elite is a gray mass with no political influence. This creates a big number of hopefuls, none of whom has real influence." [Source:Oleg Shchedrov, Reuters, December 22, 2006 ||||]

That left the way open, he said, for a power grab by someone with armed people under his command. "The National Security Ministry and Interior Ministry and the presidential security service could lay claim to power or at least dictate a successor," he said. Niyazov's purges were chiefly aimed at sidelining officials before they could build a power base. Some were jailed. Others fled to join the ranks of Turkmenistan's exiled opposition. Two months before his death, Niyazov replaced the leaders of all five regions. ||||

Oleg Shchedrov of Reuters wrote: “Turkmenistan's armed forces are weak and kept far away from political power. That would leave other institutions to jockey for position -- the Interior Ministry headed by Akmammet Rahmanov, the National Security Ministry under Geldy Ashirmukhamedov and the presidential bodyguards. "Power could go to the one least affected by reprisals. If such logic works, that will be the Interior Ministry," Grozin said. Independent analyst Arkady Dubnov believed the presidential bodyguards were more powerful. "People whose opinion matters say Akmyrat Redzhebov, head of Niyazov's security service with access to the president and considerable influence, is likely to play a key role," he said. ||||

“Konstantin Zatulin, a leading expert on ex-Soviet states, said Niyazov's tactics have even kept traditional Turkmen institutions at arm's length. "There are always clans and ethnic communities in any oriental country, but it is difficult to speak of them because, like everyone else, they were purged every six months," he said. Niyazov's son Murad, who now lives in the United Arab Emirates, is also unlikely to be a player in the succession. "The president tried to engage Murad in state activities, but it didn't work," said Dubnov. "He does not have his own team, lacks experience and is disliked by the top bureaucracy." ||||

“Whichever group is best placed, analysts agree there is little chance of an outburst of revulsion at established power and the start of a pro-democracy movement, like Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution and Ukraine's Orange Revolution a year later. "I expect no colored revolutions. In Turkmenistan, there are no colors apart from bronze on his statues," Zatulin said. "There may, however, be a massacre if the political ambitions of one of the rivals for power prevail." But Dubnov said violence was unlikely. "I think there will be no civil war in the usual sense of the word. The struggle will take place in lobbies and palaces." ||||

Berdymukhammedov Officially Becomes President

Deputy Prime Minister Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who had been named interim head of government, became the leader of Turkmenistan after he won a special presidential election held in early February 2007. Berdymukhamedov elevation to the presidency seemed assured after an extraordinary session of the Halk Maslahaty (Turkmenistan’s parliament) amended the constitution on December 26, 2006 to allow the acting president to run, along with five other candidates, for the presidency on February 11. 2007.

Joshua Foust wrote in The Atlantic, Berdimuhamedov was swept to power after Niyazov died. “That death sparked some truly bizarre commentary in the west, including speculation that the country would collapse violently as elites battled for control of limited resources. There was no clear succession plan, even if the head of the Parliament was meant to be the interim president. That never happened. Instead, Turkmeni elites quietly negotiated a new status quo by putting Berdimuhamedov in charge, then presented that to the world six weeks as an election in fait accompli (he got 89 percent of the vote). A year later, in 2008, Turkmenistan held an election for its majlis, or Parliament, which heralded a surprise 94 percent turnout.” [Source: Joshua Foust, The Atlantic, January 7, 2012]

Berdymukhamedov was sworn in as president of Turkmenistan on February 14, 2007 at a session of the People's Council, the highest legislative body, a few minutes after the head of the central elections commission announced that he had won the election with nearly 90 percent of the vote. In the election he faced what was widely seen as token competition from five other candidates from the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT). All six of the candidates were members of the DPT — Turkmenistan's only registered political party, created by Niyazov. The government banned exile opposition politicians from running.

Like the other candidates, Berdymukhamedov promised to follow in Niyazov’s footsteps but he also promised unlimited access to the Internet, better education and higher pensions. The head of the country's central election commission publicly vowed to work to ensure Mr Berdymukhamedov's victory. "We're not voting on the programmes because they are all the same," one Turkmen man told Reuters as he went to vote. "Which one promised to pay a pension? That's the one I want to vote for," said an ethnic Russian woman in her 50s.

Rigged Special Election That Made Berdymukhammedov President

On the February 2007 elections that official made Berdymukhammedov president, Radio Free Europe reported: “ For most countries, a 98.65 percent voter turnout in an election would be amazing. But that's not necessarily the case for Turkmenistan, where official turnout at the last presidential election -- in 1992 -- was 99.8 percent. But the official overwhelming turnout in this presidential election is at odds with reports from Radio Free Europe correspondents, who reported sparse attendance at several voting centers, both in the capital, Ashgabat, and in the eastern Labap Province. Jose Soares, a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which unofficially observed the election, said the elections "were absolutely not free and fair." [Source: Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe, February 12, 2007]

Erika Dailey, the director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, said from the start that not much could be expected from this election. "[People note that] this is the first multicandidate presidential election in Turkmenistan," he said. "That may be the case but it's an election without choice. Essentially among the six candidates there were no significant differences in platform and since they were all representing the same [political] party, the vote in an of itself is not significant."

Dailey said in some democratic countries this type of an election would be the first step in determining a president -- that is, choosing the top candidate from one party. "Generally that's considered just a primary [election], and a primary is not the basis for actually selecting a president," she said. That an election was held at all is significant. Niyazov was named president-for-life at the end of 1999 and the Turkmen regime shrugged off seven years of international criticism for that decision. It would have come as little surprise to the international community if the Turkmen government had simply appointed a successor without holding a multicandidate election.

Michael Hall, the International Crisis Group's Central Asian project director, told Radio Free Europe from Bishkek that the reason for holding the election is "legitimacy." "On the other hand, the very fact that elections are being held is interesting," he said. "The new authorities in Turkmenistan want to show some kind of legitimacy before their own population and before the international community, so one could say it is a good sign that maybe something in Turkmenistan is changing."

Dailey said: "What is important though, and I think profoundly important, is the fact that for the first time people inside Turkmenistan have the opportunity to elect somebody who has already promised change, who has broken certain taboos, for example talking about certain social problems; everything from drug addiction to the failure of the education system and so forth."

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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