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What Next After Turkmenbashi?

The death of Turkmenistan's cruel dictator could lead to democracy for the strategically located, natural gas-rich country or throw Central Asia into chaos

When Turkmenistan's president, Saparmurat Niyazov, died of cardiac arrest at the age of 66 on 21 December, many wondered if the demise of this ruthless dictator would bring his impoverished people a step closer to democracy. But the real question is if his death will lead to instability and chaos instead.

With a population of just 5 million people, Turkmenistan sits atop massive natural gas reserves and is strategically located, bordering the Caspian Sea, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Iran, and Uzbekistan.

Niyazov, known as Turkmenbashi, or father of all Turkmen, came to power in 1985 as first secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party when Turkmenistan was still a part of the Soviet Union. In 1991, he became the first president of independent Turkmenistan. He was proclaimed president for life several years ago by the People's Council. Presiding over a closed and repressive regime, and brutally suppressing any sign of dissent, he was a model tyrant. During his years in office, scores were arrested, tortured, sentenced to long prison terms, and sometimes killed.

Niyazov flung Turkmenistan back into the Dark Ages: theaters, libraries, and newspapers were closed and access to education, travel, and medical services curtailed. He ordered that all hospitals outside the capital Ashgabat be closed; thousands of health workers were dismissed and replaced with military conscripts. He deprived one-third of the country's elderly of their pensions and dramatically cut pensions for the rest. The unemployment rate shot to 60 percent and over half of the population now lives below the poverty line.

At the same time, Global Witness, a London-based human rights watchdog, maintains that overseas funds under Niyazov's control amount to billions of dollars, of which over 2 billion are allegedly with Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt, Germany.

Much of Turkmenistan's revenue was squandered on Niyazov's glorification: hundreds of statues of the president and his family were built, including a gold-leafed giant likeness in the capital that revolves with the sun.


The inner workings of Niyazov's secretive regime are difficult to decipher, but one prominent opposition politician does not believe that the president's death came as a surprise. Sapar Yklymov, co-chairman of the Republican Party of Turkmenistan and a former deputy agriculture minister who now lives in Sweden, said that the governors of all five provinces and the commander of the border troops had been replaced shortly before Niyazov's death, some of them with powerful security officials.

Niyazov's death was followed by a brief power struggle within the top echelons of the regime. Under the constitution, the speaker of parliament, Ovezgeldy Atayev, should have taken over as acting president pending elections. But shortly after Niyazov's death he was charged with abuse of power and human rights violations and became the subject of a criminal investigation. His place as interim leader was taken by Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, the deputy prime minister.

But if Berdymukhamedov and other officials saw the great leader's death as an opportunity to advance their own interests, many Turkmen are simply glad to see an end to Niyazov's brutal and erratic rule.

"Because of a campaign of terror Niyazov unleashed in Turkmenistan in recent years, a great many people considered him their enemy, and many of them, in a fit of temper, might want him to be punished in revenge," the human rights officer of the Republican Party of Turkmenistan, Bairam Shikhmuradov, said. Shikhmuradov is the son of former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in connection with assassination attempts against Niyazov in 2002.

Bairam Shikhmuradov now lives in Moscow and knows nothing about how his father is doing – or even if he's still alive. He is confident about Turkmenistan's future, however. "It cannot be worse in Turkmenistan than it was under Niyazov, and the new authorities will not be as cruel as Niyazov was."

Sapar Yklymov's brother, Aman, was arrested after Sapar was accused of being involved in the same assassination attempt against Niyazov. He was reportedly tortured throughout the time he spent in jail and eventually died in custody in March 2003.


Turkmenistan's confirmed reserves of natural gas amount to some 2 trillion cubic meters. The country annually produces some 60 billion cubic meters of natural gas, a quarter of which is used for domestic consumption. The current main importers of Turkmen gas are Russia, Ukraine, and Iran, and Turkmenistan's gas plays a key role in Russian president Vladimir Putin's policy of using energy as a tool of political influence in other countries.

But under Niyazov's rule, the republic became an unreliable energy supplier. Gas supplies to Russia were frequently cut off during price disputes, and the country recently signed an agreement with China that provides for China to buy 30 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas each year for 30 years, starting in 2009, through a new pipeline. (Planning for the pipeline was supposed to be completed at the end of December 2006.)

The agreement not only breaks Russia's monopoly on export routes for Turkmen gas but also threatens an earlier agreement between Turkmenistan and Russia's Gazprom because Turkmen gas production cannot cover all export commitments.

The agreement with China also raised the price of Turkmen gas bought by Russia from 65 to U.S. $100 per 1,000 cubic meters. It also sent a message, along with other projected Turkmen pipelines across Afghanistan and across the Caspian Sea, that Russia, a key supplier of gas to Europe, could face a supply crunch in the not-so-distant future.

The complex politics of energy have fueled speculation about Russia's interest in Niyazov's death. Russia was accused by Turkmen officials of being behind the 2002 assassination attempts against Niyazov.

But not everyone thinks that Niyazov's death is a good thing for the buyers of Turkmen gas. Dosym Satpayev, director of the Assessment Risks Group, a non-commercial research organization based in Almaty, Kazakhstan, believes that Niyazov suited many because of his "relative predictability." "Other countries have gotten used to Niyazov despite his willfulness," Satpayev said. "His death could frighten those who had already signed contracts with him."

The Turkmen government was quick to reassure its partners. "Turkmenistan will honor all commitments under international and bilateral contracts," it said in a statement read on national television.


Will the tyrant's death open space for democracy or lead to unrest?

"Unfortunately, instability and civil war are possible and may be provoked by conflict among members of today's Turkmen elite," said the Republican Party's Shikhmuradov. "If officials fight each other, this battle may provoke conflict in society. In our country, family and clan ties are very close and a fight between high-ranking officials would lead to a fight between tribes."

The People's Council, Turkmenistan's highest legislative council, has now picked six candidates, including Berdymukhamedov, for the presidential poll to be held on 11 February. None represents the opposition.

But Parahat Yklymov, another brother to Sapar Yklymov who also lives in Sweden, believes that Berdymukhamedov will be just "a figurehead" while real power will rest with Akmurad Redzhepov, the head of presidential security. Sapar Yklymov predicts that Berdymukhamedov will become president but will not be able to keep power. "He is a temporary figure," he said.

Instability could ensue if Russia, Ukraine, China, Iran, and the United States began competing for access to Turkmen gas. "Russia and Ukraine will not be able to buy gas at a low price if political reforms and democratic changes take place in Turkmenistan, and the gas will be sold to China and Europe," Sapar Yklymov said.

Farhad Ilyasov, a Moscow-based sociologist, said, "A period of instability is more probable than a civil war. Democratization will not happen, though some indulgence [toward proponents of democracy] is probable."

But here lies a danger for the country, and perhaps the region: while well-established authoritarianism and democracy alike tend to produce stability, mixed systems – what Ilyasov calls "indulgence" – tend to be highly volatile, according to the Political Instability Task Force, a U.S. government-sponsored research project. Turkmenistan may be moving in precisely that direction.

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