Turkmen president Niyazov dies at 66

Leader's death sparks apparent power struggle

December 22, 2006|By David Holley | David Holley,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW -- President Saparmurat Niyazov, an eccentric leader who ruled Turkmenistan with an iron hand, died suddenly yesterday, triggering a scramble for power in the gas-rich Central Asian state.

Niyazov, who used the name Turkmenbashi, or "Father of all the Turkmen," was 66. State television said he died of a heart attack.

In an apparent sign of an immediate power struggle, the country's Security Council announced the opening of a criminal investigation against the speaker of parliament, Ovezgeldy Atayev, who under the constitution was in line to become acting president.

Instead, the council named Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, 49, to the post. Under the constitution, a presidential election must be held within two months, and the acting president cannot be a candidate.

Turkmenistan has the world's fifth-largest natural gas reserves and is a major supplier to Western Europe. The gas is piped first to Russia, which then resells it. If political turmoil in Turkmenistan were to disrupt gas flows to Russia, the shortfall could be great enough that Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, would be unable to meet all its commitments, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.

Turkmen authorities praised Niyazov's long rule in a statement yesterday announcing his death. "The glorious years confirmed his heavenly faculty to foresee, and his ability to determine priorities," the statement said. "His unique abilities in the art of leading the nation revealed his talent as a diplomat and a wise and humane person."

Turkmenistan is a predominantly Muslim and mostly desert country slightly larger than California, with a population of 5 million. Any opposition to Niyazov was severely repressed, leaving no clear successor.

He also encouraged an extravagant personality cult. He renamed the months of January, April and September after himself, his mother and the Ruhnama, a historical and spiritual guide he is said to have written.

In the capital, a revolving 35-foot golden statue of Niyazov is perched atop the giant Arch of Neutrality, a symbol of his policy of remaining largely isolated to avoid the potentially dominating influences of neighboring Russia, Uzbekistan and Iran. The statue's arms are raised to welcome the sun at dawn and bid it farewell at dusk.

Some observers said a struggle over political succession might ultimately be linked to competition between the West and Russia for control of the country's energy resources.

"It is known that Turkey and the United States are making vigorous attempts to pursue their interests in Turkmenistan, primarily its oil and gas sector," Leonid Ivashov, vice president of the Academy for Geopolitical Problems in Moscow, told Interfax. "If Russia chooses a passive role, it may further weaken its positions."

Several of Turkmenistan's exiled opposition leaders said they would now try to quickly return home.

"It is a great joy for all of us that he has freed the country from himself," Avdy Kuliev, a former foreign minister who is now an opposition leader, said in a telephone interview from Norway. "We are planning to come back to Turkmenistan in the nearest future. We want to guide our people in a different way.

"Certainly Niyazov's supporters who are present in the country would like to continue this same policy, possible slightly changing it," Kuliev said. "As for us, we want an absolutely different policy. We want people to get freedom so they could decide themselves on their future."

Turkmen authorities quickly tightened entry rules, with visas no longer available at airports even for those holding official invitations to visit the country, Interfax reported.

The agency also said, citing a law enforcement source in Kazakhstan, that Turkmenistan's armed forces had been put on combat alert.

Niyazov's funeral was set for Sunday, and the country entered a period of official mourning. Streets and markets in Ashgabat, the capital, fell silent, New Year decorations were being removed and flags flew at half staff, Interfax reported.

David Holley writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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