Thursday, December 21, 2006

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The dictator for life is dead

If there were a contest for wackiest dictator in the world, many Vegas oddsmakers would have made Kim Jong Il the putative frontrunner. In truth, however, until today the hands-down winner would have been Turkmenistan president Saparmurat Niyazov:

He renamed the town of Krasnovodsk, on the Caspian Sea, Türkmenbaşy after himself, in addition to renaming several schools, airports and even a meteorite after himself and his immediate family. He even named the months, and days of the week after himself and his family. Niyazov's face appears on Manat banknotes and large portraits of the president hang all over the country, especially on major public buildings and avenues. Statues of himself and his mother are scattered all over Turkmenistan, including one in the middle of the Karakum Desert as well as a gold-plated statue atop Ashgabat's largest building, the Neutrality Arch, that rotates so it will always face into the sun and shine light onto the capital city. Niyazov commissioned a massive palace in Aşgabat commemorating his rule. He was given the hero of Turkmenistan award five times. "I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets - but it's what the people want," Niyazov said.
The Independent has more on the Niyazov looniness:
He renamed the month of January after himself and April after his mother and banned ballet, gold teeth and recorded music. A planet of the Taurus constellation, a crater on the Moon and a mountain peak were other things named after him....

Like the khans who once ruled this long-nomadic land, Niyazov ran Turkmenistan from an office draped with carpets that made it look like a nomad's tent. When foreign leaders met him he often presented them with a horse.

In 1999, the Turkmen parliament elected him president for life. Which apparently lasted only seven years. The Financial Times has his obit:
Saparmurat Niyazov, the president of Turkmenistan, has died leaving the gas rich Central Asian republic he had ruled for over twenty years impoverished, internationally isolated and with no obvious successor.

Niyazov, known as Turkmenbashi, or Ruler of the Turkmens, died of cardiac arrest in the early hours of Thursday morning, according to a statement broadcast by Turkmenistan state television.

“The people of Turkmenistan will continue to pursue the political course of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi at this difficult moment”, the statement said.

Niyazov, who was appointed president for life by Turkmenistan’s Majlis, or parliament, in 1999, was 66 years old. He admitted earlier this year that he suffered from heart disease, but no successor was named.

Niyazov was a hardline dictator who established a bizarre personality cult in Turkmenistan, a largely desert republic bordering Afghanistan, Iran and Uzbekistan. The opposition has been brutally crushed and there is no independent media.

Western diplomats have expressed concern that frequent government purges ordered by Niyazov have denuded Turkmenistan’s administration of officials capable of ruling the republic or its industries.

Western diplomats are right to be concerned -- it's going to be an interesting few weeks ahead in Ashgabat.

Whether this translates into a few interesting weeks for global energy markets remains to be seen.

posted by Dan on 12.21.06 at 08:06 AM


I actually have a 'Turkmenbashi' watch hanging in my office - maybe now I can pawn it on e-bay...

The scary thing about Turkmenistan is that no one has any idea what should happen next. Not only does the country lack any opposition, but Niyazov made virtually all the decisions himself. his ministers were terrified to make even tiny decisions without his participation. It is possibly the wierdest place I have ever visited or worked in.

If the US and Russia could stop their little pissing match, this would probably be a good opportunity to work together. It is in neither country's interests to see Turkmenistan drop into Iran's sphere of influence or descend into chaos. Particularly when so many of the other countries in Central Asia are teetering (notably Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan).

posted by: SteveinVT on 12.21.06 at 08:06 AM [permalink]

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