Books on Turkmenistan
Update No: 312 - (22/12/06)
Death of Niyazov
There will be mixed feelings in Turkmenistan and abroad at the news. President
Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan's weirdo of a dictator, an absolutely
iron-fisted leader, who created a lavish cult of personality during two decades
of rule over his isolated nation, died on December 21st. He was 66.
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.
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. In 2006,
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, plus over 20 luxury hotels for foreign
visitors, largely empty.
The Security Council declared a seven-day national mourning period, urging
Turkmenistan's citizens to "unite for the sake of our homeland's peace and
prosperity." The funeral was held on December 24th 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.
Niyazov underwent major heart surgery in Germany in 1997 and in November
publicly acknowledged that he had heart disease. But he did not seem seriously
ill. Two weeks beforehand 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, opera 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, of which more anon.
During a 21-year rule he turned his country into a hymn of praise to himself:
kindergartens, towns, factories and arports were named Turkmenbashi. He often
feigned embarrassment at the adulation. "I'm personally against seeing my
pictures and statues in the streets - but it's what the people want," he
Intrigue immediately followed his death. According to the Turkmen constitution,
upon the death of a president, the chairman of the Majlis, the country's lower
house of parliament, Ovez Atayev, should become the acting president.
But in Ashgabat power passed instead to a deputy prime minister, Gurbanguly
Berdymukhammedov. 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.
The People's Council, the upper house of parliament, called an emergency meeting
for December 26th. Under the constitution, the council selects presidential
candidates who would stand in a special election within two months, according to
Michael J. Denison, a professor at the University of Leeds who specializes in
There was no publicly clear front-runner to follow Mr. Niyazov's long reign, and
speculation ranged from insiders of Mr. Niyazov's circle to exiled opposition
leaders, at least two of whom said that they planned to return home.
Mr. Niyazov's son, Murat, was also a potential candidate, in part because in
2005 Mr. Niyazov arranged for the deletion of a line in the constitution
requiring the president to be an ethnic Turkmen.
Mr. Niyazov was married to a Russian woman; their son is half Turkmen. The
constitutional change allowed Murat Niyazov to qualify for the post, although it
was not clear whether he had the support to overcome a reputation as a playboy
with little backing from the country's five principal tribes.
Acting President Berdymukhammedov is related to Mr. Niyazov. But Mr. Denison
said in an e-mail message that he is a relatively unknown political figure and
"probably not a long-term successor."
One opposition figure, Khudaiberdy Orazov, a former chairman of Turkmenistan's
central bank, said the appointment of Mr. Berdymukhammedov and the criminal
charges against the Majlis chairman signaled that the country's security
services were influencing events.
The security services, he said, successors to the K.G.B., played a large role in
Mr. Niyazov's rule and would try to select a president of their choosing.
"We've been afraid of this, because having lots of blood on their hands,
they are a force that does not want democratic rule," he said in Sweden,
where he lives in exile. Orazov has said he and other opponents of Niyazov's
regime will meet soon to plan their next moves.
Russia's foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and Germany's foreign minister,
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, encouraged Turkmenistan at a joint appearance in Moscow
to conduct a legal and orderly succession. "We hope that the transfer of
power will remain within the framework of the law," Mr. Lavrov said,
according to Interfax. Russia is the sole transit route for Turkmenistan's vast
gas resources, and it would be interested in preserving the status quo.
Risk to political stability
Niyazov's death, after two decades of wielding enormous power, raised concerns
about whether political instability would follow. Goldman Sachs sent a note to
investors saying the abrupt political change "throws into question the
country's political stability and control over its substantial natural gas
It added that with Mr. Niyazov gone, the United States and perhaps the European
Union might compete with Russia and push Turkmenistan to consider new export
routes and weaken the position of Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled gas
monopoly. Gazprom relies in part on Turkmen gas to meet commitments to its
"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." People were genuinely stunned
in 1953 that their great war-leader was dead, even Sakharov admitting that he
cried for him.
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.
The life of a dictator
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.
Neutrality in foreign, but not domestic, policy
Under his rule, Turkmenistan adopted a strict policy of neutrality in foreign
policy. He spurned joining regional security or economic organizations created
in the wake of the Soviet collapse and rarely traveled abroad, like all paranoid
But he made an exception in supporting the U.S.-led military operations in
neighbouring Afghanistan He allowed coalition airplanes to use Turkmen airspace
and humanitarian agencies to pass through to deliver aid.
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.
THE LEGACY OF A TYRANT
The religious luminary?
Niyazov, though a Muslim like the majority of his countrymen, was well on his
way to establishing his own Muslim heresy. He wrote a book of spiritual
thoughts, as we have seen, that all students are required to study in school,
the Rukhmana (anyone who reads it three times, however, is promised a place in
heaven) and he ordered its placement in mosques next to the Koran.
He regarded his work as on the same spiritual plane as the Bible, as well as the
Koran, but like the latter composed by one man inspired by Allah. But after all
Bush is spoken to by God.
Niyazov persecuted Christians, Muslims who objected to his cult of personality,
and other believers, outlawing their gatherings, confiscating their literature,
imprisoning those caught praying together even in private homes, and, in a
throwback to Soviet-era practice, reportedly confining some in psychiatric
hospitals. There are over 7,000 political prisoners.
Hardly a day passed without another example of the president-for-life's
whimsicality. One day he demanded that would-be drivers pass a "morality
test", the next he proclaimed a national holiday in honour of the melon,
the muskmelon local to Turkmenistan.
For further proof that Niyazov was off his melon, The New Yorker reports that,
with a nod to Orwell, the president opened a Ministry of Fairness. This in a
country with no human rights at all.
Health system in tatters
Doctors in Turkmenistan, as we have seen, have taken an oath, not to Hippocrates
but to him. Not that there are many doctors any more; like Reagan and Hawke
sacking all the air traffic controllers, he dismissed 15,000 health workers.
Nurses have been forced to choose between prostitution and starvation, and the
doctors have been replaced with untrained military conscripts working with
Niyazov's new medical textbooks. They're based on the writings of a medieval
Islamic scholar - only a few centuries out of date.
Life expectancy is the lowest in the region, and infant mortality as high as
sub-Saharan Africa's. But for a president with a bad heart? Teams of German
specialists were brought in.
Greatly concerning its neighbours, Turkmenistan no longer reports on outbreaks
of infectious diseases. On the other hand, Niyazov eliminated old age - first,
by arranging for people to die young, and second, by fiddling the definitions.
Everyone is now officially young.
It is equally bizarre in education. All libraries have been closed outside the
capital, along with rural kindergartens. Anyone with overseas tertiary education
has been sacked, as have teachers lacking "ethnic purity".
But the minds of the people are still being nourished by a two-volume work
called "Book Of The Spirit." Forget "The Da Vinci Code" -
this is the bestseller. One guess who wrote it. And the humble author tells
readers that simply by turning its pages they'll get into heaven.
Economy in ruins
Meanwhile, life is hell. Despite having the fifth-largest gas reserves on Earth,
the economy is in ruins. One reason may have been Niyazov's approach to
commerce. A recent transaction recalls one of Milo's in Catch-22: it involved
trading oil for 12 million pairs of galoshes, which were swapped for TVs sent to
the Ukraine in exchange for 3000 spruce trees. Income from gas and oil reserves
was squandered on presidential projects such as vast mosques, a zoo and a ski
resort in the middle of the desert.
People have been too sick, hungry or afraid to protest. Censorship is total and
the jails beckon. And Europe wants the gas.
The following is an assessment of the implications for the energy industry:-
Energy Rivalries Set to Heat Up
By ALEX NICHOLSON AP Business Writer
A golden statue of Saparmurat Niyazov rotates on a pedestal in Turkmenistan's
capital to always face the sun - a testament to the leader's personality cult
and a garish product of the Central Asian nation's vast energy wealth. The sun
is after all the ultimate source of all our energy.
Now, the autocratic president's death on December 21st is set to fuel a rivalry
between Russia, the United States and China for access to the former Soviet
republic's massive gas reserves in what analysts call a repeat of 19th-century
rivalries in the region.
"Turkmenistan has returned as a key piece in the new Great Game," said
Alfa Bank strategist Chris Weafer, referring to Russia and Britain's jostling
for pre-eminence in Central Asia in the 1800s. "It is a big prize."
Over the past year Niyazov, who personally brokered the country's energy deals,
had sought to balance Russia's influence - courting Turkish and, in particular
Chinese companies, to help explore and develop its nearly 3 trillion cubic
meters of proven gas reserves.
Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly OAO Gazprom controls the only transit
route for Turkmen gas exports to other former Soviet states and Europe.
Keen to lock in fresh energy sources to feed its exploding economy, China saw
its efforts rewarded with Niyazov's promise to pipe 30 billion cubic meters of
gas beginning in January 2009. It also won an invitation last month to tap the
giant Iolotan fields, which the late president declared, to international
disbelief, to contain 7 trillion cubic meters of natural gas - or more than even
Saudi Arabia's proven reserves.
Washington, meanwhile, has lobbied for a pipeline out of Turkmenistan across the
Caspian Sea to the west, bypassing Russian territory. That would meet a U.S.
strategy of tapping sources of crude and gas outside the Middle East, and
drawing Caspian states away from Russia and closer to the West.
Niyazov ultimately proved "too difficult" for U.S. officials to deal
with, Weafer said.
"Russia will want to retain its political influence in the country and one
assumes that the U.S. will try to use the opportunity (of Niyazov's death) to
get back in there, increase its influence and resurrect the plan for the
pipeline across the Caspian," Weafer said. "But my guess is that the
Chinese will have the biggest delegation at the funeral."
Jonathan Stern, director of gas research at the Oxford Institute for Energy
Studies, says that multinational oil companies will prick up their ears at the
news of Niyazov's death, but serious reforms would need to be undertaken before
they could enter the promising market.
"The big guys, the people who might be interested, can't touch the place -
it doesn't come close to meeting the standards of corporate
responsibility," he told The Associated Press.
"Obviously they can't afford not to look that this place and the
possibility that it might open up - it's obviously clear that they need to
consider this," he said. "I just don't think we'll see any rapid
developments. We need to find out if there will be real change in status
That could come in the form of some indication of democratization in the capital
Ashgabat or open auctions of its hydrocarbon reserves.
"Given the resource base, it's always been at the back of peoples minds,
but it's become increasingly difficult to work there because of the centralized
decision-making and dominance of state-run monopolies," said analyst Hilary
McCutcheon of energy consultants Wood MacKenzie. "That may be on the brink
Turkmenistan's burgeoning relationship with China has also rattled Ukraine,
which relies on cheap Turkmen gas supplies to keep its domestic bill down.
Gazprom has a contract until 2009 to buy 50 billion of the 60 billion cubic
meters that Turkmenistan produces annually, most of which it then re-exports to
While a recent price hike secured by Niyazov just months before his death
suggests that pact is unlikely to be reconsidered in the near future, analysts
say little will be clear until a successor is named.
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 the Turkmen
If Ashgabat makes good on its deal with China, and if fresh reserves are not
developed apace, supplies to Ukraine could be cut, analysts say.
If that happens, Kiev would be forced to buy more expensive Russian gas,
potentially putting it into a situation similar to a price fight with Gazprom
last winter, which resulted in some cuts in supplies to some European cities.
Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline approved
The participants of the regional conference held in New Delhi have supported the
project for constructing a gas pipeline between Turkmenistan, Afghanistan,
Pakistan and India, Itar-Tass News Agency reported on November 20th.
In 2005, Asian Development Bank submitted to the ministers of oil and gas
industry and mineral resources of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India
the final version of the feasibility study of the Trans-Afghan gas pipeline
designed by British company, Penspen. The pipeline will have a capacity of 33
billion cubic metres of natural gas per year.
The 1,680 kilometre pipeline will cost an estimated 2.5 billion Euro. It will
run from the Dovetabat gas deposit in Turkmenistan to the Indian town of Fazilka,
near the border between Pakistan and India. Six compressor stations are to be
constructed along the pipeline.
Energy cooperation discussed Turkmenistan-Japan
Turkmen president, Saparmurat Niyazov, received Minoru Murofushi, co-chairman of
the Turkmen-Japanese economic cooperation commission and honorary advisor to
well-known Japanese Itochu Corporation, Turkmenistan.ru reported.
Murofushi was accompanied by Ambassador Yasuo Saito who came to Ashgabat to
present credentials. During talks, the sides discussed a wide range of issues of
bilateral relations, first of all in the sphere of economy. Murofushi emphasised
that Japan attaches particular importance to the development of business
partnership with Turkmenistan. President Niyazov said that Turkmenistan prefers
to deal in a bilateral format and pays great attention to develop friendly
relations with countries in the neighbourhood. He cited China as an example of a
successful partnership that got a powerful boost by recent accords on Turkmen
natural gas exports to China and on the construction of a new gas pipeline.
Niyazov acquainted his guests with the new concept of development of the oil and
gas sector of Turkmenistan up to 2030 and export routes for Turkmen energy
carriers to the world markets, including Trans Afghan and Caspian gas pipelines.
He said that Turkmenistan is making efforts to develop multiple routes for
energy exports including the Trans-Afghan Pipeline (TAP) for supplying gas to
Pakistan and India and Caspian coastal pipeline for transporting gas to Ukraine
and Europe. Niyazov made some proposals to the Japanese delegation for
participation in the transportation and refining of Turkmen energy resources.
The sides also discussed prospects for cooperation in the oil and gas field.
They noted that the current practice of the long-term fruitful dialogue serves
as a strong foundation for greater prospects of further cooperation. Having
underlined that Turkmenistan favours the partnership based on mutual benefit and
national interests, Niyazov invited his guests to consider the possibility of
involvement in a number of projects concerning the extraction and processing of
raw hydrocarbon raw materials. Minoru Mirofusi said that he was pleased with the
continued participation of Japanese companies such as Itochu, Komatsu and many
other world-known producers in the development of Turkmenistan. Murofushi
pointed out that Japanese firms are ready to actively participate in
implementing ambitious projects in Turkmenistan.
Ashgabat-Dashoguz Fibre optic communication line completed
Turkmenistan has successfully completed construction of the Trans-Karakum
fibre optic communication line between Ashgabat and Dashoguz, state news agency
The new 574-kilometre communication line runs across the greatest desert of the
continent - Central Karakum Desert that connects Ashgabat with the county's
northern province via the high-speed digital corridor. The construction of the
new line was carried out in combination with installation of telephones in