After some 30 minutes of brain-damaging Italian TV news – mainly focusing on the shenanigans of a secondary-school male teacher who has decided to start cross-dressing during class hours, shocking the students and their outraged parents – I had to rely on the BBC website and Nosemonkey’s blog to find out that Turkmenistan’s dictator Saparmurat Niyazov has suddenly died of a heart attack, aged 66. Another one bites the dust.
I know what you’re all thinking, and a commentator responding to Judd’s entry on Niyazov’s death on the Think Progress blog confirmed my suspicions: poisoning is the forte of the KGB, heart attacks instead of the CIA…! And indeed, speculation on the causes and consequences of Niyazov’s departure will mount furiously over the coming days and weeks, with fears of instability already spreading like fire across the blogsphere. But while Central Asia is still calm, we should take the opportunity to reflect on what kind of authoritarian madness Turkmenistan – one of the most repressive and closed countries in the world, according to Human Rights Watch – has just endured for the last 17 years.
Niyazov, leader of the Turkmen SSR, supported the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 and retained control of the country after the fall of the Soviet Union, becoming the first (and so far only) President of Turkmenistan [Wikipedia]. He pushed through a constitution that concentrated power in his hands and embarked upon a megalomaniac career as president for life. While other post-Soviet countries suffered disorder and, in some cases, revolutions or war, Niyazov lorded over Turkmenistan with a sprawling security apparatus and a fantastically well-developed personality cult [NY Times].
Mr. Niyzazov forbade independent news media and opposition parties, jailed rivals or drove them to exile, and imposed his name, words and image on all manner of public discourse and life. Amongst others, he renamed the town of Krasnovodsk, on the Caspian Sea, Türkmenbaşy after himself, in addition to renaming several schools, airports, streets, a meteorite and even the months and days of the week after himself and his family. His pronouncements, many of them disconnected from the normal affairs of state, were sometimes strange enough to assume an irreverent life on the Internet [NY Times].
For example, he claimed, in his masterpiece Ruhnama (for, lucky us, he left penty of writings behind him) that the Turkmens invented the wheel, the use of iron and steel and most great inventions of the world; indeed, such is the greatness of the Turkmens that they founded the greatest empires in history, including the Sejuk, Ottoman and every other empire in the Middle East and West Asia.
In fact, Niyazov’s legacy is far greater than these pearls of wisdom and the thousands of monuments to his inferiority complex that litter Turkmenistan’s squares, as Global Witness explains in a press release issued today:
Between two and three billion US dollars of Turkmenistan’s public funds are held by the Turkmen Central Bank at Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt […]. Further billion-dollar foreign reserve funds of oil, gas and cotton revenues, which were under the sole control of Niyazov, are also believed to be held at Deutsche Bank. Evidence suggests that many of Niyazov’s bizarre prestige projects, including golden statues and palaces, were paid for out of these funds.
Clearly, the emperor forgot to share with his beloved subjects the profits of Turkmenistan’s large gas reserves, the 5th in size in the world, and a vital supply to Russia’s Gazprom. Emerging from such a catastrophic political scenario and with the prospect of gaining control over such a huge bounty, I have very little hope that Niyazov’s successor will be anything more than a brutal scavenger. I hope (but doubt) history will prove me wrong…