Turkmenbashi Is Dead, Long Live Who?
As most Central Asia watchers will already have learnt, President Saparmurat Niyazov, father of all the Turkmens, Turkmenbashi, has died at the age of 66. And already theories among opposition groups are abounding about how long he has actually been dead. Retrospectively, it was clear that someone in Ashgabat had been panicking hours before the almost certainly false date of death was announced.
One sign of the panic would have been the farcically inappropriate arrest of environmental activist Andrei Zatoka, as reported by the Associated Press:
Turkmen environmental activist, Andrei Zatoka, was detained on Sunday by authorities for unknown reasons, rights groups said Wednesday, expressing concern that he might be subjected to torture or other ill treatment.
As it happened, he was preparing to fly to Ashgabat and then on to Moscow. It is presumable that there could have been fears that a politically active citizen making a trip outside the country might take some undesired news with him.
And so for all the talk of imminent power struggles and the end of the Turkmenbashi reign, it is immediately obvious that things will remain as they have been for the foreseeable future. The population will not cheer the passing of a despot, but they may come to mourn the passing of a deeply compromised stability.
The colour reports coming from Ashgabat, which will understandably go through some hours and days of great anxiety, have mostly been courtesy of Agence France Presse, who is said to have a dependable stringer in the country. Among the largely stunned testimony gathered from the citizenry of Ashgbat was Murad, a 27-year old businessman:
“I felt awful when I heard on the television. We have suffered a loss. We feel we ourselves have been orphaned,” he said, alluding to Niyazov becoming a orphan in early childhood — much mythologised in his poetic texts.
But one of the earliest commentator to set off the blocks were Kazakh parliamentarians, who urged, as have so many across the world, urged Turkmenistan to seek the path of stability. As Serik Abdrakhmanov, chairman of the committee on international affairs, defence and security in the Kazakh Majlis said:
“This is perhaps the time to wish our brother nation of Turkmenistan peace and tranquillity, and let those that yesterday grovelled before the Rukhnama think more about the people and help them find a stable and peaceful path with the help of the country’s natural wealth.”
And to best implement this path to a smooth future would be to effect a constitutionally respectful and legal transition; something that has already been marred by the arbitrary and immediate ascendancy of Deputy Prime Minister Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, 49. As Reuters notes:
“Under the constitution, Parliament head Ovezgeldy Atayev should have automatically become acting head of state. But, in a sign of political tensions, justice officials immediately opened a criminal probe into his activities, blocking his appointment.”
Although Berdymukhammedov may best be remembered as the minister of health given a customary public dressing down by Niyazov in April 2004 and fined three months wages for failing to resolve the question of wage arrears in the nation’s health service, he is also believed to be a confidante of the highly influential head of the presidential guard, Akmurad Rejepov. This alliance may prove crucial and it is noteworthy that in addition to the having subverted constitutional protocol in naming Berdymukhammedov the interim leader, he was also appointed chairman of the commission overseeing the funeral, which is set to take place on Dec. 26.
Curiously, for people hungry for some background information on Berdymukhammedov’s biography, Reuters provided some interesting, if not intriguing details. In 2001 he assumed the post of deputy Prime Minister, nominally the second most important role in the country, bearing in mind that Niyazov was the Prime Minister as well as the president of his country. He was born in 1957 in a yet unidentified village in Soviet Turkmenistan and pursued a successful and prestigious academic career. As Reuters observes, ” he followed a career in dentistry both as a practitioner and an academic,” a highly exotic and suggestive detail. In 1997, he was named Minister of Health and Medical Industry, as indicated earlier.
Meanwhile, some eyebrows were raised at the recent Nov. 28 CIS meeting in Minsk, where Turkmenistan was the attending country not to send a head of state. Instead, Berdymukhammedov officiated in the role, fulfilling the role with eerie prescience, although he has no connections to the foreign ministry, to which this competence would be more naturally suited.
But surely the most sensational claim to have emerged on this individual to date is the allegation doing the rounds is that Berdymukhammedov is none other than Niyazov’s bastard son. In televised images broadcast on Russian television on the evening of the leader’s declared death, a solitary and ashen-faced Berdymukhammedov spoke in front of a portrait of strikingly similar-looking Niyazov. Such allegations have been heard on Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy on Thursday, but they have previously also appeared in Turkmenskaya Iskra and other opposition websites. This would also account, according to this theory, for Berdymukhammedov’s apparent ability to elude the grisly sentence that has befallen other high-placed figures in Niyazov’s inner circle.
Niyazov’s real family, consisting of an estranged wife and two children, a daughter and a son, are also being spoken of in the maelstrom that may come in the wake of his death.
Interestingly although it is his playboy son, about whom there are varying theories, that most is spoken about, his daughter Irina Niyazova cropped up in a market report compiled on Tuesday by the Moscow branch of Deutsche Bank:
“Niyazov’s death is likely to result in political instability and infighting between various clans. One group is centered on Niyazov’s daughter who, it is thought, oversees the personal finances of the Niyazov family.”
This theory has interesting pedigree and it is notable that only Deutsche Bank should have raised it, bearing in mind that the Global Witness report in 2006 on Niyazov’s gas-related corruption claimed that the president had as much as $2 billion under his own personal control in an account with the very same German lender. The money is sourced from Turkmen gas transactions, and if the speculation were true than this would mean a lump sum of money almost certainly lost to the country.
Other accounts, however, have it that Irina Niyazova lives in France with a Russian former general, where she runs her own bank. In this version of events, she spurned her father after he betrayed her mother with other women; a favour he returned by not using the services of her bank.
Murad Niyazov, as varying speculation has it, is also a serial womaniser, a gambler that once lost $12 million dollars on one night of playing the tables in Madrid in 1997, a former cigarette smuggler, and a bagman for his father’s illicit gas-related dealings. At any rate, it is all high rumour at this stage, although the likelihood of either of these candidates making even minimal impact on the Turkmen political scene seems vastly implausible.