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December 21, 2006
Turkmenbashi Shuffles Off

One of the last of the Soviet-era strongmen and a genuine oddity has finally died. State-run television announced the death of Turkmenistan's Saparmurat Niyazov, and given his personality cult, that says volumes:

Turkmenistan's authoritarian president Saparmurat Niyazov, who ruled the Central Asian country for 21 years, has died aged 66, state TV has reported.

Niyazov, who named cities and airports after himself in a bizarre personality cult, left no designated successor.

Turkmenistan, which has large gas reserves, now faces an uncertain future with rival groups and outside powers scrambling for influence, analysts say.

Niyazov died at 0110 local time (2010 GMT Wednesday) of a heart attack.

For those who think Kim Jong-Il is a master of the personality cult, Niyazov may be the all-time champion. He has more facilities named after him than Robert Byrd, and his rule in the post-Soviet era was absolute and relentlessly personal. In fact, it was so much so that Niyazov simultaneously held the posts of President and its successor office, the head of the legislature -- meaning that Niyazov succeeded himself in case of his death.

Niyazov ruled with an iron will. His dictates on law, culture, science, and the calendar were accepted without question. He fashioned himself as Turkmenbashi, the Father of Turkomen, and his subjects followed. Almost exactly two years ago, Niyazov held elections for his rubber-stamp People's Assembly that had so little meaning that pollers had to go door-to-door to get Turkomen to vote. Outside corporations wishing to do business with Niyazov had to publish his autobiography in order to curry favor. Still, he remained so distrustful of outside influences that he barred international couriers such as Federal Express and DHS from operating within Turkmenistan.

Niyazov certainly provided a strange sort of entertainment to the outside world, but his rule has serious consequences. The primarily Islamic state sits atop a large reserve of oil, one of the reasons foreign entities put up with Niyazov in order to do business with him. The suddenly rudderless nation has a useless legislature and no serious candidates to succeed Niyazov now that he has died so suddenly. The shocked nation could turn towards the next strongman to come down the road, and given the volatility of that region, that could be a radical Islamist just as much as it could be another Russian puppet with delusions of grandeur.

Neither of those choices sound entertaining at all, considering the position Turkmenistan occupies. It is the northern neighbor of both Iran and Afghanistan, sharing the Caspian Sea with the former as well as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The potential for radicalization appears very high, and the vacuum left by Niyazov's death gives Iran an opening to expand its influence in the region -- and the influence of radical Shi'ite Islam. It's a volatile mix that requires vigilance during the war on radical Islamist terror.

UPDATE: Registan also ponders a Turkmenbashi-free future.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 21, 2006 5:14 AM

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I cannot comment in any great detail on the internal politics of Turkmenistan following the death of Saparmurat Niyazov [Read More]

Tracked on December 22, 2006 1:39 PM


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