Saparmurad Niyazov was the president, prime minister and head of the main political party in Turkmenistan from the time of the nation’s independence in 1991 to his death in 2006. Square jawed and built like an ox, he established a personality cult rivaled only by by the leaders of North Korea and presided over one of world’s most authoritarian governments. In his homeland he went by the title Akbar Turkmenbashi, which means “Great Leader of all the Turkmen.” It has a similar meaning as Ataturk, the name adopted by the man who founded modern Turkey.

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “Turkmenistan, from the time it gained independence from the Soviet Union, in 1991, until the end of 2006, was a tyranny, run by a madman, Saparmurat Niyazov...While he lived he was one of the wealthiest and most powerful lunatics on earth. He treated Turkmenistan as his private kingdom, a land in which everything belonged to him, including the country’s plentiful natural gas—much of which issued into the air from his own person in the form of interminable speechifying.” [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007]

Niyazov equated nationalism and patriotism with love for himself. The national slogan during his rule was “”Halk, Watan, Turkmenbashi” (“People, Nation, Me”). In 1992, he forced the Turkmenistan parliament to award him the Order of Hero of the Turkmen People. Although he was viewed by the international community as a bad joke from another age, he seemed to be genuinely well liked by ordinary Turkmen, but due to repression and lack of freedom of speech in Turkmenistan it was difficult to truly gauge how popular he was.

It was easy to dismiss Niyazov as a joke — he Washington Post once called him a “real banana” in a “land of melons” — but some of his policies were dangerous and menacing and surely are not funny to citizens of Turkmenistan. Boris Shikhmuradvov, an opposition leader who defected, told the Wall Street Journal, “The comic representation of what happens there is not good. The whole nation is being destroyed by this horrible man.” Central Asian expert Martha Brill Olcott told the Los Angeles Times, “ Niyazov “ is wholly unpredictable and does not behave rationally...No one takes seriously that his policies can have tragic consequences for the people of Turkmenistan and those of neighboring countries.”

Niyazov, who was president of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic at the time of independence, is a Turkmen of the Teke tribe who was born in 1940. Trained as an engineer, Niyazov rose through the ranks of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan, reaching the top of the party hierarchy as first secretary in 1985. During his tenure, Niyazov remained aloof from glasnost and perestroika , the reforms of CPSU First Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev, even terming Gorbachev's program "pseudo-reform." When Moscow hard-liners attempted to unseat Gorbachev in the coup of August 1991, Niyazov refrained from condemning the conspiracy until after its failure was certain. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996]

Niyazov's Life

Niyazov was a Teke (Tekke), the largest Turkmen tribe. He was born on February 19, 1940. According to the official version of his biography, his father died in World War II fighting against Nazi Germany, while other sources contend that he was sentenced by a military court for desertion. After his mother — Gurbansoltan Eje — and the rest of his family died in the great Ashgabat earthquake of 1948 when he was eight he was raised in an orphanage and later in the home of distant relatives. He said his upbringing deprived him of clan ties, which are so important to a Turkmen’s identity. When he became president he built a grand orphanage outside Ashgabat used for training future leaders. Niyazov claimed his upbringing elevated him above clan loyalties.

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “ Turkmenbashi was an orphan. He makes much of this in the book, and the passages about his childhood have a clumsy tenderness. “I have borne many difficulties throughout my life,” he writes. He tells how his father was killed in the Second World War, fighting for the Soviets in North Ossetia, and how, in 1948, when he was seven, his mother was killed in an earthquake that levelled much of Ashgabat. In adversity, Bashi was made stronger. “When I considered my situation, I understood that I was not an orphan!” he says. In place of parents, he had a nation and a cause—and, in Oguz Khan, a father in history. Later in the book, he waxes emotional about mothers. “The mother is a sacred being,” he writes. “One can understand the value of sacred things only after one has lost them.” He recalls a Turkmen saying—“Fatherless, I am orphan; motherless, I am captive”—and concludes, “Fate decreed two pains for me. I was both an orphan and a captive.” [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007 ~]

“A lost childhood seems essential in a dictator’s biography; it is a determining factor in the development of a political tyrant. As far as abandonment complaints go, “Ruhnama” resembles (sometimes almost word for word) the tale of the Austrian paperhanger in the first part of “Mein Kampf,” who wrote, “In my thirteenth year I suddenly lost my father. . . . When my mother died, Fate, at least in one respect, had made its decisions.” But the orphaning is more sentimentalized in Bashi’s book, and the list of obligations and duties he provides for the Turkmen people includes the not exactly Hitlerian “Maintain a smiling face.” ~

After finishing school in 1959, Niyazov worked as an instructor in the Turkmen trade-union exploratory committee. After that he was educated in Russia. He graduated from the Leningrad Polytechnical Institute with a degree in electrical engineering but, according to Wikipedia, he was expelled a few years later for academic failure. Niyazov joined the Communist Party in 1962. In 1980, he was head of the Industrial Transport Department of the Turkmen Communist Party (TCP) and then appointed first secretary of the Ashgabat City Party Committee. In early 1985 he was appointed the first secretary of the TCP. In 1990 he and other republics forest secretaries were elected ex officio full member of the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party. Gorbachev picked him to be an agent of reform.

Niyazov spent a great deal of time in Leningrad and Moscow. He married a Russian — Muza Sokolova — in 1962. After Turkmenistan became independent she choose to live in Moscow with their son and daughter and visited Ashgabat only on rare occasions. Niyazov’s son, Murat, was one of the people mentioned to replace him after his death but Murat was known more as a traveling playboy than a political player. He too spent little time in Turkmenistan and the idea of him as leader presumably was not taken seriously among the major power players in Turkmenistan.

Niyazov’s Character

Niyazov was a well-built, solid-looking man with dark, Turkish features and Elvis-style backcombed hair. He wore well-cut business suits and huge rings, including one with a huge diamond and another with a massive sapphire surrounded by diamonds. He spoke in a surprisingly soft voice when he gave a speech.

Describing a Niyazov speech, Joseph Fitchett wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “Turkmenbashi hardly moved. When he knocked over a glass, people ran to pick it up for him. His gestures were economical, letting his rings flash in the spotlight. He remained centered above a giant round victory loaf...At a sign from Turkmenbashi, the armed forces orchestra and national choir filled the hall with the pounding sounds of the national anthem. Old soldiers saluted. Schoolchildren clapped. The hall roared with applause.”

Niyazov was described a workaholic. He lived alone and drove himself in a large Mercedes surrounded by his entourage. He liked to eat Italian food sent to him from an Italian-run hotel. He traveled around the world but was not very visible in his own country. Many members of the staff in the presidential palace were young Indonesian women, whose duties one could only speculate about. Niyazov’s health was a source of constant rumors. He has heart trouble. His hair turned white after quadruple bypass surgery in Germany in 1999.

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “Turkmenbashi was emphatic about smiling. “A smile can make a friend for you out of an enemy,” he writes. “When death stares you in the face, smile at it and it may leave you untouched.” Smiling is a form of conversation: “Talk to each other with smiles.” It is a way of delaying aging: “ ‘There will never be any wrinkles on a smiling face,’ as the saying goes.” And, in memory, it is a source of comfort to him: “I often remember my mother. Her smile . . . is visible to me in the dark of night, even if I have my eyes shut.” This was perhaps why many of the portraits of Bashi showed him with a smile, though he never looked less amused than when he was grinning; his smile—and this may be true of all political leaders—was his most sinister feature. [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007 ~]

“He hates people meddling,” one diplomat told Theroux. “He hates N.G.O.s” — non-governmental humanitarian organizations. He refused to ask for help from the International Monetary Fund or from the World Bank, presumably fearing that scrutiny of Turkmenistan’s finances would reveal information his exploitation of Turkmenistan for his personal gain. “That’s his big secret,” another diplomat told Theroux. “He’s a billionaire many times over.” A person who had spent some time with Turkmenbashi in his palace said, “He’s a tease. He’s a mocker. He banters with his ministers and humiliates them.” ~

Niyazov Becomes President for Life

As is true with other Central Asian leaders, Niyazov rose through the ranks of the Communist party in the Soviet era . He became the head of Turkmen SSR in 1985 and was a member of the Soviet Politburo. Niyazov was head of the Turkmen Communist Party when independence came. He convinced his rivals, including a former foreign minister, to leave Turkmenistan for Moscow, clearing the way for his election.

After his appointment as president of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic in October 1990, Niyazov ran as an uncontested candidate in the republic's first presidential election in June 1991, winning over 99 percent of the vote. From that position, he presided over the declaration of independence in October 1991. The 1992 constitution of the independent Republic of Turkmenistan called for a new presidential election, which Niyazov won in June 1992. In January 1994, a referendum extended his presidency from a five-year term to a ten-year term that would end in the year 2002; of the 99 percent of the electorate that voted, officially only 212 voted against the extension. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996]

According to to Associated Press: “Niyazov was elected president of the newly independent Turkmenistan in 1992 with a reported 99.5 percent of the vote... 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. [Source: Associated Press, December 21, 2006]

There is no evidence that anyone threatened Niyazov’s rule. One diplomat told the Los Angeles Times that Niyazov maintained power by allowing the leaders of the major ethnic group and tribes to “come into the government, enrich themselves and their families and leave the government and go home.”

Elections Under Niyazov

Niyazov was elected to the newly created position of president on October 27, 1990. He ran unopposed and received 98 percent of the vote. In the first election after independence, in 1992, not surprisingly he received 99.5 percent of the vote. In 1994, he held a rigged referendum to suspend the next election and extend his term to 2002. It passed with 99.9 percent of the vote. Only 17 citizens dared to vote against him. One of these ended up in a mental institution.

A parliamentary vote of 98.3 percent in 1999 exempted Niyazov from term limits, effectively allowing him to serve as “president for life.” He said has he would reconsider the issue in 2008 but died before that time.

In parliamentary elections in December 2004, polling stations were nearly empty. The 131 candidates vying for 50 seats were all members of Niyazov’s Democratic Party and all supported Niyazov’s policies and based their campaign on ideas presented in Niyazov’s book “Rukhnama”. There were so few voters that there was some discussions of taking ballot boxes door to door to get people to vote.

In April 2003, 2.4 million were eligible to vote for a 65-member national people’s assembly and for 5,535 local councils. One 70-year-old voter told AFP, “There used to be a lot more singing and dancing but otherwise elections now are practically the same as in the Soviet era.”

Niyazov's as President

After independence Niyazov continued as Turkmenistan’s chief of state, replacing communism with a unique brand of independent nationalism reinforced by a pervasive cult of personality. A 1994 referendum and legislation in 1999 abolished further requirements for the president to stand for re-election (although in 1992 he completely dominated the only presidential election in which he ran), making him effectively president for life. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007]

Lucy Ash of the BBC wrote: “From billboards to TV screens to bottles of vodka, there is no escaping Mr Niyazov's pudgy features... He ordered the construction of a lake in the midst of the desert and a ski resort on the snowless foothills of the Iranian border. Turkmenbashi could afford these follies de grandeur because his country enjoys the world's fifth biggest reserves of natural gas. Income from gas deals rarely finds its way into state coffers, most of his five million citizens live in poverty and life expectancy is on a par with some of the poorest parts of Africa. [Source:Lucy Ash, BBC, December 21, 2006]

Describing a visit by Niyazov to the town of Dashhowuz, Ian Greenberg wrote in the New York Times magazine: “Children were allowed to crowd the intersection...Suddenly, the kids were calling out—screaming really as the motorcade of black Mercedes slowly moved toward us. From out of one car emerged a chunky man with very black hair, a mechanical smile and an overflowing fist of what I was to discover later were American $100 bills. The children seemed to understand the proceedings. They stuck out their palms for Turkmenistan’s president-for-life, the nations very own ayatollah, as he doled out bills. Television cameras recorded the act of benevolence...With the children running to their parents clutching enough money to cover the rent for half a year, Niyazov returned to his sedan. The driver pumped down on the accelerator, and with the free gas given to every citizen of Turkmenistan, the car moved past my lie of sight, and he was gone.”

The old Soviet-era Communist Party bureaucracy remains in place. Niyazov micromanaged the entire government. He hired and fired bureaucrats on whims, made decisions on the fly and interrupted meetings to bawl out officials that yawned. Many good people were fired or demoted, leaving important jobs unoccupied or occupied by people that were loyal to Niyavov but otherwise were totally incompetent. Those that were competent were afraid to make decisions and endure Niyazov’s wrath.

Saparmurad Ovezberdiyev, a correspondent in Ashgabat for Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty’s Turkmen Service, wrote in the Washington Post: Niyazov “plunged the country ever deeper into a neo-Stalinist stupor. Institutions such as courts and parliament are merely a facade for thugish, arbitrary, one-man rule, Niyazov has cut school to nine years and college to two, the easier to hold sway over an ill-educated populace,” Despite abundant resources, “Turkmenistan’s people are increasingly impoverished while a coterie of courtiers gorges itself on pilfered wealth.”

Niyazov's Policies

Niyazov changed the name of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan (CPT) to the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT). It was the only party allowed. He set up a rubber stamp parliament and decreed that he could president for as long as he wanted. According to Associated Press he “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.” In 2006, he “announced he would provide citizens with natural gas and power free of charge through 2030.”

According to to Associated Press: “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. [Source: Associated Press, December 21, 2006]

Niyazov opened mosques and revived Islamic practices and has encouraged a rediscovery of Turkmen culture and customs as long as it didn’t threaten his authority. Niyazov promised to initiate economic reforms and make Turkmenistan more democratic. But if anything, over time, the government has become more repressive and less democratic despite claims to the contrary.

Niyazov was an incompetent administrator and had no coherent policy. People with talent and ability—including opposition leaders, a former oil and gas minister, a former chairman of the national bank and ambassadors to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States—all left the country. Others were fired or imprisoned because Niyazov feared they might plot a coup against him.

In 2002 an alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov led to a new wave of security restrictions, dismissals of government officials, and restrictions placed on the media. Niyazov accused exiled former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov of having planned the attack. In 2005 Niyazov exercised his dictatorial power by closing all hospitals outside Ashgabat and all rural libraries. The year 2006 saw intensification of the trends of arbitrary policy changes, shuffling of top officials, diminishing economic output outside the oil and gas sector, and isolation from regional and world organizations. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007]

Turkmenistan Economy Under Niyazov

Independence for Turkmenistan was supposed to unleash economic reforms, privatization and prosperity. Since the country was rich in resources and had a relatively small population everyone was supposed to prosper. This has not happened. Instead economic reforms have not taken place and only the well connected have gotten rich while the general population has gotten poorer.

Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov promised to make Turkmenistan the "Kuwait of Central Asia" with free bread and Mercedes for every family. This hasn't happen either. Niyazov had no business sense or grasp of market economic fundamentals. He called entrepreneurial activity “rent-seeking situations” and gave out free food in the streets of Ashgabat.

The Turkmenistan economy declined in the years after independence. In 1995, it shrunk by 25 percent. In 1996, it shrunk 15 percent, despite projections of 17 percent growth, and inflation was 150 percent. In 1997 Turkmenistan’s GDP was 65 percent of the 1990 level, compared to 85 percent in Uzbekistan, 45 percent in Kazakhstan and 62 percent in Russia. In the late 1990s, the economy began improving but few benefits were passed down to ordinary people. Average change in GDP in 1999 was 16 percent. In 2003 it was estimated that a quarter of the population was unemployed and ever more were underemployed. Water shortages and even food shortages were a fact of everyday life.

The economy of Turkmenistan remains centrally controlled. Although food prices are often determined by the market, things like water, gasoline and electricity are heavily subsidized and virtually free. This has resulted in some wasteful practices. Some people leave their water taps on all the time so they are ready when the water comes one. Others leave their gas burners burning so they don’t have to waste money on matches. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The elite that occupy high positions in the government enrich themselves with the windfall profits from natural gas and cotton exports. As of 2003, Niyazov is believed to have squirreled away between $1.4 billion and $2 billion into foreign accounts.

See Agriculture

International Relations Under Niyazov

Niyazov managed to avoid trouble in a region full trouble by adopting a neutral policy. When the policy was adopted in 1995, Russian troops in the country, many border guards along the Afghanistan and Iran borders, were kicked out. Moscow was not pleased. Niyazov forged close ties with Turkey and distanced Turkmenistan from its neighbors: Iran and Uzbekistan. In 1994, Niyazov announced he found the term “former communist countries” offensive. Around the same time he converted to Islam and made a pilgrimage to Mecca, returning with $10 billion in Saudi Arabian aid.

Niyazov maintained cordial relations with Moscow, and allowed the U.S. to use Turkmen airspace during its 2001 intervention in neighboring Afghanistan, but he otherwise followed a policy of strict neutrality and refused to join regional security alliances. Throughout the Niyazov era. Turkmenistan took a neutral position on almost all international issues. Niyazov eschewed membership in regional organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and in the late 1990s he maintained relations with the Taliban and its chief opponent in Afghanistan, the United Front. He offered limited support to the military campaign against the Taliban following September 11, 2001. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007 **]

Between 2002 and 2004, serious tension arose between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan because of bilateral disputes and Niyazov’s implication that Uzbekistan had a role in the 2002 assassination attempt. In 2004 a series of bilateral treaties restored friendly relations. In the parliamentary elections of December 2004 and January 2005, only Niyazov’s party was represented, and no international monitors participated.

China was among a very few nations to whom Turkmenistan made significant overtures. The sudden death of Niyazov at the end of 2006 left a complete vacuum of power, as his cult of personality, compared to that of former president Kim Il Sung of North Korea, had precluded the naming of a successor. **

Turkmenistan has explicitly avoided multilateral arrangements, most of them sponsored by Uzbekistan, with the other Central Asian republics. It refused membership in the Central Asian customs union established by Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan in 1994, and in the Central Asian Economic Union that sprang from the initial agreement. Turkmenistan also contributed nothing to the CIS peacekeeping force sent to Tajikistan by those three nations and Russia in 1993. By the end of 1995, tensions with Uzbekistan were so high that Turkmenistan boycotted all regional meetings. However, in January 1996 a meeting of the two nations' presidents produced a package of economic cooperation agreements, and new agreements on road and railroad transportation were discussed in the first half of 1996.

Niyazov, Corruption and Lavish Spending

Niyazov sold the same natural gas to several foreign companies and enriched himself and his cronies by gaining control of valuable assets and dividing the profits, kickbacks and commissions. Much of Turkmenistan’s oil wealth was placed in an offshore account controlled by the president. This “foreign exchange fund” of $2.6 billion accounted for 60 percent of the country’s GNP in 2002. It was directly under Niyazov’s control and was not considered part of the state budget. The foreign reserves in the national treasury were only $25 million at the same time.

In August 2004, Niyazov announced a a plan to construct an ice palace in middle of the one of the hottest countries in the world so children can learn to ice skate. “Let us build a palace of ice big and grand enough for 1,000 people,” he said on state television. The ice palace was built in the Copa Deg mountains a few miles outside of Ashgabat. Other building projects include one of the largest mosques in the world, a large aquarium, and statues of the mother that Niyazov never knew. Niyazov’s lavish expenditures helped the government run up a $2.3 billion foreign debt in 2002.

The huge mosque planned by Niyazov in part as a monument to himself was inaugurated in his birthplace, Kipchak, a village Ashgabat, in 2004. The 190,000-square-foot mosque, large enough to hold 10,000 worshipers, was built for $100 million by the French construction group Bouygues. The mosque's marble walls are inscribed with verses from the Koran alongside extracts from Niyazov's spiritual guide, the Rukhnama. [Source: AFP, October 23, 2004]

There are many tributes to President Niyazov and his folly. In the main square there is a immense bronze bull with a large metal globe on its horns and small gilded figure of a baby on top the globe, representing Niyazov when he was orphaned by the 1948 earthquake. Turkmenbashi Palace lies at the heart of a multibillion dollar collection of white marble buildings built by Niyazov that includes the parliament building and a new national museum. Many of the buildings are lit around the clock. Many of the new apartments around them are empty, apparently because no one can afford them.

Assassination Attempt of Niyazov?

In November 2002, Niyazov escaped an assassination attempt when attackers raked a motorcade thought to be carrying him with machine gun fire. The attack was carried at 7:00am in downtown Ashgabat. No one was killed but four policemen were hurt. Officials said that Niyazov was at work and the motorcade was a decoy. But in fact Niyazov was driving his own car.

“In 2002, in what was possibly a failed coup, “ Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker, Niyazov “was shot at as his motorcade sped through Ashgabat. This attack resulted in a wave of repression; the alleged perpetrators and their helpers were hunted down and either killed or imprisoned. Whole families were jailed, and nothing was heard of them afterward. The word was that some disgruntled and ambitious former officials had schemed to get rid of Turkmenbashi. The caper failed, but it understandably enhanced his paranoia; his delusions of grandeur were joined by delusions of persecution. He ordered a clampdown on what was already limited contact with the outside world, and stripped the country of the few freedoms that remained. He also intensified another inconvenient feature of most tyrannies: roadblocks.” [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007]

Some opposition members accused Niyazov of staging the event. Many analysts think the attack was genuine and home-grown, either led by powerful families or clans or mobsters. There was a rumor that it was orchestrated by a Central Asia drug cartel with members in high positions in the Turkmenistan government. Niyazov blamed Russian and Uzbekistan“mercenaries.” Following the alleged assassination attempt, Niyazov launched a major purge against opponents, banned Russian TV broadcasts, and drove many ethnic Russians out of the country. More than 100 people were arrested, including, according to some reports, entire families. The Uzbekistan embassy was raided.

In December 2002, former Turkmenistan Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who had become the main opposition leader, 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. Shikhmuradov had previously accused Niyazov of staging the assassination attempt to justify a crackdown on the opposition A number of other people fingered by the government as taking part in the “coup” made similar televised confessions. Officials with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued a statement that it was “very worried” about human rights in Turkmenistan in connection with mass arrests that took place after the assassination attempt.

Repression Under Niyazov

During his tenure, Niyazov conducted frequent purges of public officials and abolished organizations deemed threatening. He has said he opposed “formal democracy” because it is burden on the people. He held on to power through manipulating the intelligence and security services and denying the opposition access to the government.

Under Niyazov the dismissal and arrest of high-level officials was routine. During parliament sessions, members were required to stand up and address him as if he were a teacher and they were students. Sometimes he scolded the members as if they were children. Once during a televised cabinet meeting he fired his education minister, telling him “you’ll never get another job.”

The Niyazov government asserted that authoritarian measures were necessary to bring about stability. American diplomats argued that the opposite is true. They said the governments need to adopt democratic reforms and tolerate opposition to give the government legitimacy and genuine grassroots support.

See Media

The KGB-like state security service stamped out any hint of dissent. Once when a group of dissidents began handing out anti-Niyazov pamphlets in a bazaar not only were the dissidents arrested the entire bazaar was closed down and cordoned off. One man told the Wall Street Journal, “We are held so tightly that any person who talks to us is taken away.”

In August 2003, suspecting some members of parliament were somehow connected to an assassination plot against him, Niyazov oversaw the process of stripping parliament of any vestiges of power. The parliament continued to exist but lost its legislative powers to the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council). [Source: Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe, December 13, 2008]

Human Rights Under Niyazov

Under Niyzov, political opponents and religious minorities were persecuted. Opposition leaders were closely watched, harassed, assaulted, arrested, and sent to mental hospitals and labor camps. Their families were also harassed. Some said Niyazov wasn’t as bad as some claimed. There were fewer political prisoners in Turkmenistan than in other Central Asian countries. A group called the “Ashgabat Eight” that was imprisoned in 1995 for leading demonstrations to protest unpaid wages was released in 1998 due to international pressure. For the most part, human rights issues didn’t get in the way of attracting foreign governments and companies to develop Turkmenistan’s oil and natural gas wealth.

Niyazov stated his support for the democratic ideal of a multiparty system and of protection of human rights, with the caveat that such rights protect stability, order, and social harmony. While acknowledging that his cult of personality resembles that of Soviet dictator Joseph V. Stalin, Niyazov claims that a strong leader is needed to guide the republic through its transition from communism to a democratic form of government. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Although the Niyazov government has received consistent criticism from foreign governments and international organizations for its restrictive policies toward opposition groups, in general the government has not taken extreme steps against its political opposition. In 1993 no political prisoners, political executions, or instances of torture or other inhumane treatment were reported. The government has made conscious efforts to protect equal rights and opportunities for groups of citizens it considers benign. Such measures have been applied especially in safeguarding the security of Russian residents, who receive special attention because they offer a considerable body of technical and professional expertise. *

Nevertheless, government control of the media has been quite effective in suppressing domestic criticism of the Niyazov regime. In addition, members of opposition groups suffer harassment in the form of dismissal from jobs, evictions, unwarranted detentions, and denial of travel papers. Their rights to privacy are violated through telephone tapping, electronic eavesdropping, reading of mail, and surveillance. United States officials have protested human rights violations by refusing to sign aid agreements with Turkmenistan and by advising against economic aid and cooperation. *

Interrogation and Harassment in the Niyazov Era

Saparmurad Ovezberdiyev, a correspondent in Ashgabat for Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty’s Turkmen Service, disappeared as he left his house to get an exit visa to travel to Russia. He wrote in the Washington Post: “As I set off for the for the ministry by taxi, I noticed soldiers everywhere. One of them motioned for us to stop. Men presenting identification from the Committee for National Security pulled me out of the car and shoved me into a van and pulled a bag over my head. I soon found myself in at committee headquarters, where a doctor gave me an injection, supposedly for high blood pressure.” [Source: Washington Post, August 6, 2004]

“They hauled me before an interrogator who barked questions at me, ‘Why do you work for Radio Free Europe? Why do you create problems and encourage anarchy in the country?’ Then he threatened, ‘You’ll never leave here. You’re looking at 20 years.’ They brought me back to my cell, where I waited. Guards brought me gruel and inedible bread.” When his wife called the police after he disappeared to ask where he was they suggested that she look in the morgue. Finally with the help of the U.S. embassy he was freed.

Two months later, he wrote, “I stepped out of my house to take out some garbage, Someone threw a bag over my head from behind, and two men began to hit me and shove me into a car. We drove for a long time as they beat me with water-filled plastic bottles, standard security committee practice to cause pain without leaving bruises.”

“We came to a halt. A man told me I could pay $1,000 and go free. ‘Is that $1,000 for the two of you? I asked. He grew angry and hit me again. They took off my denim shirt, pulled by T-shirt up over my head, and pushed me out of the car and onto the ground. They said, ‘We’re going to bury you alive.’...I heard a car pulling away. When I extricated myself and looked around, I saw they had brought me to the Vatutin cemetery. But I was alone and alive.” After that even though the U.S. embassy sent body guards to protect him, security agent continued to harass him and threatened him. He eventually left the country.

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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.

Last updated April 2016

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