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Turkmenistan president Niyazov dies of cardiac arrest

Niyazov, has died unexpectedly, throwing the energy-rich Central Asian state into political uncertainty, reports Fred Weir.

india Updated: Dec 22, 2006 01:34 IST
Fred Weir
Fred Weir

Turkmenistan's quirky president-for-life, Saparmurat Niyazov, has died unexpectedly, throwing the energy-rich Central Asian state into political uncertainty.

Solemn news broadcasts on Turkmen state TV announced on Thursday that "Turkmenbashi (leader of the Turkmen) the Great" had died of cardiac arrest, complicated by diabetes, but offered few details about what may lie ahead for the isolated desert nation of 5-million.

"The internal and external policies proclaimed earlier will be continued further," the statement said. "The nation must remain united and unshaken."

Turkmenistan, which has the former USSR's second largest gas reserves, is largely a riddle to the outside world since Niyazov crushed all domestic opposition and forbade most contacts with foreigners.

"The country lives behind an iron curtain, and nobody knows what to expect now that Niyazov has suddenly left the scene," says Andrei Grozin, an expert with the official Institute of Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow.

"Niyazov made absolutely no provisions for the succession, so we might expect anything."

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 be underway, Russian news agencies report that the current Mejlis chairman, Ovezgeldy Katayev, is facing unspecified "criminal proceedings" at the moment and his place will be taken by Deputy Prime Minister Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

Though Niyazov maintained cordial relations with Moscow, and allowed the US to use Turkmen airspace during its 2001 intervention in neighbouring Afghanistan, he followed a policy of strict neutrality and refused to join any regional security alliances.

At home, his iron-fisted rule was often described as "pharaonic", due to his absolutism and love of building huge monuments in his own honour. He was derided by critics 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.

"It's hard to know what successor will emerge, since Niyazov eliminated most natural contenders for power," says Grozin.

"I fear the country may devolve into chaos, at least for a time."

Niyazov, orphaned son of a World War II veteran, rose to become Communist Party chief of Turkemenistan in 1985. Following the collapse of the USSR he consolidated one-man rule over the largely rural republic, winning 1992 elections with 99.5 per cent of the vote. In 1994, he was declared president-for-life after a referendum he won with 99.9 per cent support.

In recent years Niyazov had become increasingly erratic, passing laws banning men from wearing beards or listening to car radios, prohibiting teenagers from playing video games, naming towns and airports after himself and scattering statues of his mother around the country.

A year ago he ordered all doctors to swear a personal oath to himself instead of the Hippocratic Oath.

First Published: Dec 22, 2006 00:58 IST