President Saparmurat Niyazov was larger than life; in death, the forces rushing into fill that void risk destabilizing Turkmenistan, the country he ruled with an iron hand. There is the danger that instability unleashed by the struggle for power could spread beyond Turkmenistan’s borders to other Central Asian states. Mr. Niyazov would have liked the thought that he could not be replaced and that his passing focused international attention on his country, even if it unsettled Turkmenistan and the region.
Mr. Niyazov came to power in 1985 when he was appointed first party secretary of the Republican Communist Party, a member of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s new generation of Central Asian leaders. He survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and the removal of his patron. He was elected president of the newly independent country of Turkmenistan in 1992 with 99.5 percent of the vote. Two years later, an astounding 99.9 percent of voters agreed to let him remain in office for a second five-year term without elections. Four years after, Parliament removed all term limits; Mr. Niyazov still had the People’s Council, a handpicked rubber stamp assembly, name him president for life shortly after.
While consolidating power, Mr. Niyazov constructed a cult of personality that has few modern rivals. He had himself named the “Father Of All Turkmen,” banned opera and ballet, and regularly fulminated against lip-syncing and car radios. Like many megalomaniacs he had cities named after him, as well as numerous other monuments scattered throughout the country; his face adorns the country’s currency. He showed imagination by having doctors abandon the Hippocratic Oath and instead swear allegiance to him. He had the months of the year renamed — January now bears his name, April, his mother’s — and he wrote the “Rukhnama,” a book of spiritual guidance that is required reading for children.
None of that gave him real immortality, however, and Mr. Niyazov succumbed last week, unexpectedly, at the age of 66. In keeping with the notion that he was the state, Mr. Niyazov had no designated successor. The constitution has a procedure for replacing the president — the speaker of Parliament is supposed to become acting president until elections can be held — but the People’s Council endorsed Acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov as heir apparent to Mr. Niyazou.
Mr. Niyazov had a son, but he is inexperienced and few expect him to succeed his father. Most opposition leaders have been driven into exile and the remaining politicians are all Niyazov loyalists with nothing to distinguish them save for clans and factions. With eyes firmly fixed on Turkmenistan’s enormous energy resources — it has 3 trillion cubic meters of proven gas reserves, the fifth largest in the world — external forces are rushing to increase their influence in the country.
Russia is leading the charge. Moscow seeks to re-establish its leading role in Turkmen politics and have more say in a country of national concern given its location: Turkmenistan borders Iran and stretches from the Caspian Sea to Afghanistan, placing it at the heart of 21st century energy politics. Turkmenistan supplies Gazprom most of the gas that the Russian company exports to Europe; rethinking those contracts would badly impair Gazprom’s ability to meet its customers’ demands and do great damage to President Vladimir Putin’s desire to use energy as the springboard for Russia’s return to great power status.
Those same gas reserves inspired China to court Turkmenistan as well. Earlier this year, Mr. Niyazov — worried about dependence on Russia — promised to supply China with 30 billion cubic meters of gas beginning in January 2009 and awarded it rights to explore the Iolotan fields. Gaining a stronger foothold in Central Asia — a region on China’s borders that could be a source of Islamic and separatist contagion — also motivated Beijing.
Other players are jostling for position, too. Iran is ever eager to expand its influence, especially into Central Asia, and is always looking to secure its borders. The European Union wants Turkmenistan to develop alternative gas pipelines in hope of reducing EU dependence on Russia; it would also like to see more democratic governments in Central Asia. The United States is also backing new pipelines, to diversify gas supplies and to give U.S. companies — and Washington — more influence in the region.
With no tradition of democratic or even institutionalized politics and many countries jostling for influence, there is a real danger that Turkmenistan could become unstable and a power struggle erupt. Attempts to shape the outcome and gain some control over those vast energy resources will encourage outside powers to meddle, and there is a risk that instability will spill over its borders. This is yet another of Mr. Niyazov’s legacies.
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