End of an Era
The death of Saparmurat Niazov, Turkmenistan’s first and only president, has left a gaping hole in a political system that was constructed almost entirely around him.
With little really known about the inside workings of Niazov’s administration - not least because regular purges created a massive turnover of ministers - analysts in the region have been left guessing about who might take over, and whether the transition will be peaceful.
Niazov liked to be called Turkmenbashi or “Leader of the Turkmen” and won international notoriety for his eccentric policies, but inside the country his regime was less of a joke, combining poor economic management, arbitrary cuts to health and other essential services and the stamping out of real or perceived sources of opposition. For most Turkmen citizens, the president’s white-elephant construction projects had no relevance and there was little sign of the “Golden Age” he insisted he had created for them.
Niazov’s death was announced on state television on December 21 after he suffered a heart attack overnight. The country went into official mourning pending a funeral scheduled for December 24, which will follow the Muslim rite.
The State Security Council and the cabinet convened an emergency meeting to discuss arrangements for the funeral as well as how to handle the immediate transitional period.
A public statement issued by the meeting, rapidly published on the government’s website, reflected the huge loss of a figure who dominated the country for the 15 years since Turkmenistan became independent. It spoke of the “unshakeable and infinite” love the people had for their leader, and said they would devote themselves “eternally” to carrying his policies to completion.
But there were also some hints that the change might have a few rocky moments.
An official report of the meeting said one of its objective was to consider “measures to maintain social stability and law and order”, and urged the nation to display “resilience, courage and cohesion” at a difficult time. Such remarks are out of character for a regime which - when the president was alive - never let slip any suggestion that popular unrest was even a remote possibility.
The joint meeting appointed Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who is also health minister, as acting president.
This came as a surprise, since the constitution delegates that role automatically to the speaker of the Mejlis or parliament, currently Ovezgeldy Ataev.
However, the official report of the meeting stated that Ataev was ruled out because the prosecutors had brought a criminal case against him. It did not make it clear when this prosecution was brought.
Since the president was simultanously prime minister and head of the Halk Maslakhaty, an occasional national congress invested with more legislative powers than parliament itself, Berdymukhammedov was the next in line in the hierarchy. Under the constitution, he is not supposed to stand for president. An election should take place within two months.
Eduard Poletaev, a Kazakstan-based political scientist, told the NBCentralAsia news agency that the neatest solution would be for some leader or political grouping to emerge from the current establishment and assert control.
However, given the high turnover of ministers due to sackings and arrests, and the excessive deference officials were required to show Niazov, few senior politicians in office are well known, and none is an obvious candidate to succeed him.
Poletaev warned that the situation could also descend into anarchy, not least because the general climate of fear and denunciation created under Niazov has made people mistrustful of one another. In addition, the regional and tribal groupings that were kept firmly squashed under Niyazov’s one-man rule may now rear their heads – using past or present politicians to represent them.
Turkmenistan expert Mars Sariev made the point that the role played by these regional elites is all the more important because there are no other political institutions.
One possible confrontation, according to Sariev, would pit the Ahal regional grouping - to which Niazov belonged, and whose region is home to the capital Ashgabat - against leaders from Mary region in the southeast, who have the advantage that lucrative gas reserves are located in their area.
Sariev predicted that centrifugal forces could come into play in other regions, too, and Turkmenistan might even be at risk of dividing unto several entities.
In the absence of a strong government or parliament, some analysts told NBCentralAsia that the security services might step in, perhaps forming some kind of interim administration that would maintain control while facilitating deal-making among the various regional elites. The military and the interior ministry may be less in a position to do this than the Ministry of National Security, a powerful organisation that carries on surveillance and persecution in the same vein as its predecessor, the Soviet KGB.
Meanwhile, the Turkmen opposition - scattered across Russia and Europe - has sensed that its time may have come at last. Leaders are even planning a swift return to Turkmenistan. As well as old-style dissidents, the opposition contains former officials such as the Moscow-based Avdy Kuliev who might make heavyweight contenders if they were allowed to re-enter domestic politics.
Of all the countries with an interest in what happens next in Turkmenistan, it is Russia that will be watching developments with the keenest eye. The Russian corporation Gazprom buys some of Turkmenistan’s natural gas and provides the pipeline network that allows it to export to other countries such as Ukraine.
Moscow’s public discourse with Niazov’s government has been robust and occasionally frosty over the years, with friction caused by Turkmenistan’s increasingly isolationist policies, its treatment of the ethnic Russian minority, as well as wrangling over the gas price.
There was no outpouring of Russian grief at the demise of this Soviet-era figure who took charge of Turkmenistan seven years before the USSR came to an end.
A statement from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke of Moscow’s desire for a legitimate transition and continuity in bilateral relations. “We hope that a new leadership will act in the interests of cooperation with Russia, and of the region as a whole,” he said.