20 Years ago today…
Yesterday saw the 20th anniversary of Saparmurat Niyazov coming to power in Turkmenistan. On the 21st of December 1985 Saparmurat Niyazov was appointed First Secretary of the Turkmenistan Republican Communist Party. Mikhail Gorbachev, who was in the process of turning over the elites and leaders of Central Asia who had been in power for decades during the Brezhnev era, appointed him. Gorbachev wanted fresh blood and new faces in the Central Asian Republics to push through his reforms of perestroika. In 1985 Niyazov represented a generational change from his predecessor Mukhamednazar Gapurov who had served as Turkmen Fist Secretary since 1969.
Niyazov had a steady rise throughout the party. In 1980 he was appointed secretary for industry before becoming the first secretary of the Ashgabat city organisation. It was during this period that he built and consolidated his power base in Ashgabat. In 1984 he became an ideological instructor for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Central Committee. It was during this time that he gained a reputation of loyalty to Moscow which would serve him well in his next appointment which was chairman of the Turkmen Council of Ministers. It was soon after this that Niyazov got the top job in Turkmenistan, First Secretary.
Niyazov was first elected president of Turkmenistan by popular vote on October 27th 1990. He became president of a Sovereign independent country when the Soviet Union broke up in December 1991. Niyazov went to the polls again in June 1992 and obtained classic Soviet levels of support gaining 99.5% of the vote. It was the first and last time a presidential election had been held in independent Turkmenistan.
Niyazov stands at the epicentre of the political system in Turkmenistan and sometimes it is difficult to remember that he wasn’t always the omnipresent leader staring out from bottles of vodkas or portraits on the wall. He was a communist party bureaucrat, an apparatchik, who came to power through an institution that shaped his ideas, beliefs and career route. He wasn’t the institutional manipulator that we perceive him as today where he is viewed as someone who can decree laws, ignore parliament and alter the constitution. Communist institutions, in fact, shaped Niyazov.
Nevertheless the anniversary marks a significant milestone in the history of Turkmenistan. The state news agency, Turkmendowlethabarlary, issued a special commentary to mark the occasion.
“By historic measurements 20 years are just a moment in the continuous sequence of centuries and millenniums that change each other according to the eternal law of the universe, the commentary says in particular. It happened that, apart from this law, there is also a humane dimension with its own reference points and peculiar parameters. By the will of the same fortune this seemingly short period of time can be compared to the epoch by its importance for the Turkmen people, for it was during these years that our life changed once and forever. Twenty years have been enough for a new generation to grow and get firmly established on the Turkmen soil, and for a new state, independent Turkmenistan, to appear on the world map.”