Friday, December 22, 2006

Sapurmurat Niyazov dies

Bizarre, brutal and self-obsessed. Now time's up for Turkmenistan's dictator

President who craved adulation dies at 66· Uncertain future could hinge on huge gas reserves

Tom Parfitt in Moscow

Guardian December 22, 2006

He outlawed opera, ballet and men listening to car radios. He decreed that the month of January should be named after him and April after his mother. He published a book of his spiritual thoughts that became required reading not only in schools, but for all those wishing to pass their driving test.
Even for central Asia, the absolute rule of Sapurmurat Niyazov was colourful.
But if life under Turkmenistan's dictator was dangerous and bizarre in equal quantities, the sudden release from his 21-year grip on power yesterday left a gaping vacuum in a land with the world's fifth largest reserves of natural gas.
Soon after Niyazov died of a heart attack at the age of 66, Turkmenistan's armed forces were put on high alert and border crossing points were closed. State television showed musicians sawing on violins and a week of mourning was announced. New Year celebrations were cancelled and black tape was hung outside Turkmen embassies abroad.
The government urged the country to "be calm and brave" and unite further to overcome with dignity the severe ordeal which had befallen it and "continue honourably the deeds of the national leader".
Natural gas
There is no obvious successor to the man who forced his impoverished people to call him the Turkmenbashi - "the leader of all Turkmens", because he ensured that no one in his close circle could establish a power base.
But events in Turkmenistan will be of supreme interest to Moscow, China and the west. The country pipes huge quantities of natural gas to Russia's Gazprom and is a key player in Moscow's policy of using its position as a monopoly supplier of energy for political ends. Much of Europe's natural gas starts in this central Asian desert state.
"The situation now will be similar to that in the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin," said Konstantin Zatulin, head of Moscow's Institute of CIS Studies. "At first the leadership gets together to show its unity and then internal conflicts begin."
Opposition politicians who live in exile in Scandinavia, Russia and Turkey, including former foreign minister Avdi Kuliev, announced plans to return home last night. However, it remained unclear whether anti-regime figures, who have been ostracised for years, would be allowed in the country. "A group intends to return but there are criminal cases still open against many opposition figures," said Farkhad Ilyasov, an activist in Moscow. Turkmenistan's foreign ministry refused to comment. "We can't talk, we are in mourning," said a spokesman.
During his rule Niyazov turned his country into a hymn of praise to himself. He erected numerous monuments in his honour, including a revolving gold statue in the capital, Ashgabat. Giant billboards of the leader hang all over, although he often feigned embarrassment at the adulation. "I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets - but it's what the people want," he once said.
But the pressure to worship the leader was relentless. Children were forced to learn his book of poetry, the Ruhnama, at school, and a copy of the book was sent into space for good measure.
Official propaganda had it that Turkmenbashi brought his people into a new "golden age", but in reality they were held in almost total isolation and political dissent was crushed. Niyazov used an alleged assassination attempt in 2002 - thought by many to be fabricated - as an excuse to crack down on opponents, who were imprisoned and interned.
Prisoners
The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights called yesterday for scores of political prisoners to be released following the dictator's death. Executive director, Aaron Rhodes, said: "Niyazov turned Turkmenistan into a bizarre totalitarian state, a place sinking into a desperate and sick existence. Now there is a chance to introduce a real democracy."
Niyazov came to power in 1985 as first secretary of the Turkmen Communist party. After the Soviet collapse six years later he was elected president and in 1999 was made president for life.
Deputy prime minister Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was named yesterday as acting president. No date has been set for a presidential election. Analysts predicted a succession battle that would see the likes of Russia and China trying to exert influence to preserve energy supplies.
Mr Zatulin said: "There are two main dangers: an attempt to preserve the political structure where natural rights and freedoms are denied, and the risk of a fall into bloodshed, carnage and civil war."
A dictator's decrees
Ordered the building of a palace made of ice to accommodate up to 1,000 people in the Turkmen desert
Built numerous monuments to himself including a gold-plated statue that rotates to face the sun at all times
Plastered his own image on carpets, vodka bottles, watches and launched his own brand of perfume. When he dyed his hair black, he made it illegal to own watches which showed him with grey hair
Banned opera and ballet, long hair or beards for men and the playing of recorded music at any public event
Published a book of spiritual musings or "vessel of knowledge, wisdom and sound thought", the Ruhnama, and introduced it into the country's legal code
Changed the name of January to Turkmenbashi, and the name of April to that of his mother
Closed all hospitals except those in the capital, Ashgabat
Decreed the building of a desert zoo host penguins among others
Urged young people not to get gold dentures saying: "Those of you whose teeth have fallen out did not gnaw on bones. This is my advice."


The Man Who Would Be King

He renamed January after himself and April after his mother. He's building an ice palace in the desert, and promised all citizens of Turkmenistan a cow with calf...

Tom Templeton on the strange but sinister cult of Saparmurat Niyazov

Observer October 10, 2004

On 27 October the people of Turkmenistan - a gas-rich, desert-dominated central Asian country - will be celebrating 13 years of independence from the former Soviet Union. There will be feasts and military parades in the gleaming capital, Ashgabat. But, like the Soviet-era buildings behind the marble facades, the fabric of society is crumbling under the rule of the man they will be praising: Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenbashi the Great, Turkmenistan's 'President for Life'.

Turkmenistan, which is twice the size of the UK yet has a population of just 5m, has since seceding from the Soviet Union in 1991, 'acquired one of the worst totalitarian systems in the world', according to the European parliament. And central to this system is a cult of personality to match Mao Tse-Tung, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong Il. Turkmenistan's President Niyazov is a man, after all, who has renamed the month of January - after himself.
In the last decade, thousands of statues of Niyazov have been erected across the country. The grandest is 12 metres high and coated in gold leaf; it stands on top of a 75-metre tall monument in the centre of Ashgabat and rotates to face the sun. Airports, regions, meteorites, cities and schools have been renamed after the president and his parents. Meetings in his office are televised and broadcast weekly on the three state TV channels.
As well as renaming January, Niyazov has renamed April after his mother, May after his father and September after his 'divinely inspired' masterwork, the Rukhnama. This 'book of the soul' dominates the life of his subjects. Written between 1997 and 2001, it fills bookstores across the country and has been made the cornerstone of an otherwise ravaged educational establishment. 'On a par with the Bible and the Koran, it is to be used as a Spiritual Guide,' writes Niyazov in the introduction, 'to remove the complexities and anguishes from day to day living.' There are regular pageants staged in sports stadiums depicting scenes from this opus, centring on the moral purity of his mother and father. And every morning at factories and schools the citizens sing the national anthem, which refers to Turkmenistan as 'The great creation of Turkmenbashi'.
'If I was a worker and my president gave me all the things they have here in Turkmenistan, I would not only paint his picture, I would have his picture on my shoulder, or on my clothing,' Niyazov said earlier this year. 'I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the street - but it's what people want.'
Saparmurat Atajevich Niyazov was born in the small village of Kipcak on the outskirts of Ashgabat in 1940. His father died in the Second World War, while his mother and brother were among the 100,000 killed in an earthquake that destroyed the capital in 1948. Niyazov grew up in an orphanage and went to study in St Petersburg, before returning to Ashgabat to work as an engineer. He joined the Communist Party in 1962 and rose through the ranks before being chosen by the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to be General Secretary of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan in 1985. It was perceived that his marriage to a Russian wife and his upbringing in an orphanage made him free of any clan-allegiance - an important factor for a clan-based society like Turkmenistan's - and therefore perfect for the job. He was chosen to carry out Moscow's will because of his deference and obedience, and he proceeded to do so without dissent.
Perhaps understandably, given his party background, Niyazov was not in favour of Turkmenistan's independence when the Soviet Union began to disintegrate. When it became inevitable, however, he embraced the new ideology as enthusiastically as he had the old, assuming power as president, prime minister and the chairman of the council of ministers, and promoting Turkmen nationalism as his central aim - always with himself at the centre. As the Soviet yoke fell away he assumed the name 'Turkmenbashi' ('father of the Turkmen'). He then set about forging the nation's new identity in his own image. Turkmen opposition figures were either driven into exile or imprisoned. (Most have since been released, but after their experiences in prison, and under constant surveillance since, those still in the country have never dared to speak out.)
In 1992, Niyazov 'won' the first presidential elections unopposed, and settled into a Soviet-style dictatorship. His handpicked council of ministers voted him president for life in 1999. In 2001 the Humanitarian Association of the World's Ethnic Turkmens voted to suffix Niyazov's name with Beyt ('great'), much to the president's dismay. 'I am afraid of ever more titles - some even say I am a prophet,' he complained.
State-owned newspapers are full of letters from citizens proclaiming their love for Niyazov. But loyalty to the president is not optional. Foreign newspapers are banned, and satellite TV is restricted and censored. The radio station Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty is jammed in most towns. For obvious reasons, news of nearby Georgia's 'Rose Revolution' - the American-engineered overthrow of Eduard Shevardnadze, last November - was not reported at all.
Meanwhile, bugging of telephones is assumed to be rife. Members of the intelligence services, police and military are visible on the streets of Ashgabat and other towns. Access to the internet is limited and monitored. Public demonstrations have been suppressed ruthlessly and no longer take place at all. Only two religions are freely practised: Islam and orthodox Christianity. And freedom of movement is nonexistent: Turkmen citizens need permits to enter 'special closed zones' which cover 40 per cent of the country, and travel is restricted between rural areas and the cities. According to the former US Ambassador to Turkmenistan, Laura Kennedy: 'Turkmenbashi controls everything in this country. He personally decides who comes in, who goes out.' Announcing in March that government agencies would intensify their video surveillance of Turkmen citizens - installing cameras on every major street and site in the country - Niyazov said, 'We should know if a fly quietly buzzes past.'
The cameras, he claims, are there 'not due to a lack of trust, but to avoid disorder'. And the consequences of 'disorder' are grave. Insulting Niyazov carries a minimum five-year prison sentence. Last year, terrifyingly vague treason laws were passed, carrying life imprisonment for anyone 'attempting to sow doubt among people about the internal and foreign policies conducted by the first and permanent president of Turkmenistan, the Great Saparmurat', or even 'encouraging opposition to the state'. Professor Jerrold Post - who founded the CIA's Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, and is director of the Political Psychology Program at George Washington University - is building a psychological profile of Niyazov. 'There have only been a few cults of personality to match this; Kim Jong Il and Kim Il-sung in North Korea, and Mao Tse-Tung. The narcissism of the man is really beyond description - he has essentially turned himself into a living god.'
Niyazov's grip on Turkmenistan tightened dramatically following the events of 25 November 2002, when shots were fired at the presidential motorcade. Deemed a set-up by some observers, it led to the arrests of hundreds of political opponents, journalists, intellectuals and their family members. A month later at least 59 suspects were jailed after televised show trials reminiscent of the Stalin era, during which defence lawyers actually apologised for representing their clients. These included a drugged and bruised Boris Shikhmuradov, formerly foreign minister, whose confession to masterminding the assassination attempt was clearly read from a script. 'I and my allies... are not opposition members but ordinary criminals and drug addicts... we are all worms... I am a criminal able only to destroy the state.'
According to Amnesty International: 'The relatives of those imprisoned after the November 2002 events have still not been allowed to visit the prisoners. Many were tortured and there are indications that some died in prison, but there is no way of finding out the truth.'
A ratcheting up of state repression followed across the board, including the sacking, in January 2003, of the chief mufti, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, who had led Turkmenistan's Muslims (the country's official religion) for the previous 10 years. Reports variously suggest he was suspected of involvement in the 'assassination' attempt, objected to having phrases from the Rukhnama written on the walls of mosques, or refused to declare publicly that Niyazov is 'God's prophet'. In March, Ibadullah was sentenced to 22 years in prison for reasons that remain unclear. In the same month two of the few independent journalists left in the country, from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, were arrested, beaten, drugged and threatened against broadcasting within the country. An estimated 20,000 dissidents are now in prison.
Niyazov writes in the Rukhnama: 'I am attempting to have a logical kind of freedom accepted and approved by this nation. Otherwise freedom will turn into irregularity and destroy the essentials of the state and harm the society.'
Murad Turayev and Bayram Medrov (not their real names) are civil activists from the west and east of the country and have gathered and passed on information about the human rights situation in Turkmenistan at great personal risk. Turayev says the alienation felt by the majority of Turkmens is almost total: 'The country has been converted into a hopeless and sinister reservation closed from the outside world. The main part of the population simply doesn't have any interest in what happens. Extreme poverty, unemployment and drug-taking have produced fear and hopelessness.'
Meanwhile, Niyazov continues unchecked. Ever more eccentric edicts are carried out by increasingly sycophantic flunkeys and Western companies who are happy to land vast construction contracts. In August, Niyazov broadcast on state TV perhaps his oddest plan yet. 'Let us build a palace of ice so our children can learn to ice skate,' he said, 'big and grand enough for 1,000 people.' With temperatures reaching 50C across much of the nation in summer, many people expected nothing to come of the idea, but Niyazov's favourite construction company, the French firm Bouygues, is scheduled to start on the £13m project next month.
Perhaps the biggest threat posed by Niyazov's regime is an artificial lake under construction in the Karakum desert, to be known as the Golden Age Lake. At an estimated cost of $6.5bn, it is expected by many scientists to reduce the scarce and vital water supplies of the desert nation through drainage and evaporation. Experts say the best expenditure of funds would be to dredge and re-line the Karakum canal which makes life possible for a large proportion of the Turkmen population. A senior Western official in Ashgabat, who refused to be named, believes Turkmenistan is at a crossroads. 'What it does in the next 50 years will determine what it will be like in the next 10,000 years. It will either be a country that can sustain a population of up to 8or 10 million forever, or it will go back to being a desert with a few watering holes. If it doesn't invest its hydrocarbon profits in the water infrastructure we will be bringing food aid in 50 years' time.
'With the right leader,' says the official, 'it has a chance, but Niyazov's only looking at the next 25 years - he just wants people to be quiet while he fulfils his dreams of grandeur.'
If one section of the population is the most sympathetic to its president it is the youth of Turkmenistan. According to Medrov: 'A new generation is emerging that knows nothing apart from official propaganda. Before, everyone spoke Russian, could watch TV and know something about what happens in the world, but this new generation only speaks Turkmen, so they are absolutely cut off from all this. Today's state rule is becoming popular among them and this is a new danger.'
The brainwashing is intense. Children at nursery learn phrases from the Rukhnama in praise of the great Turkmenbashi before they can read; schoolchildren have to spend two hours a day reading and pondering the lessons it contains. Entrance to university, interviews for jobs in the administration, even driving tests, depend on knowledge of the text. Earlier this year four Russian-speaking officials in the city of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) were sacked after failing the Rukhnama exam. One high-school maths teacher in Ashgabat misread the question 'What are the names of the mother and father of the president's horse?' and instead named the president's mother and father. As a result, she was denied accreditation.
Erika Dailey, director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, says: 'The government encourages children to go home and quiz their parents on the Rukhnama - and to tell their teacher if they are lacking in knowledge.' Meanwhile, parents know their children have no alternative route to success other than winning cash prizes and appearances on TV by singing songs and reciting poems in praise of Niyazov. The education system is already hamstrung by the removal of children aged 10 and over to harvest cotton from September to November, and the shortening of the state education period from 11 to 9 years. Ballet, opera, the circus and the cinema are banned in Turkmenistan - condemned by Niyazov as contrary to national traditions. And a law passed last November required non-governmental organisations to re-register, heralding the closure of groups from ecology clubs to a sports club for disabled teenagers. The scope for development is shrinking all the time.
The only head of state the 40 per cent of the population under the age of 14 have ever known is President Niyazov. According to Murad Turayev: 'The new generation of young boys and girls... consider it absolutely normal to read the Rukhnama and give all these oaths to the president. For a quarter of the country's population, the Rukhnama is virtually the only book they will have read.'
The anonymous Western official adds: 'Within one or two generations you will find a population of younger people who are totally useless, incapable of living in modern society.'
Yet this generation plays an increasingly important role in Niyazov's heavily policed state. Military service is two years and usually starts at 17 years old. Groups of teenagers with Kalashnikovs check the documents of people driving across the country. In order to bolster the failing economy conscripts work as lorry drivers, bakers, train attendants, traffic police and factory workers. On 11 February Niyazov sacked a third of the medical workforce - around 15,000 nurses and healthcare workers - by presidential decree, replacing them with conscripts to save the state money. The Western official says that a priority for the country is 'trained people to run its services and its oil and gas industry. At the moment they have to buy in all their technicians from all over the world. If they don't keep pumping, which pays for the massive subsidy system to the nation, this country will slip into chaos.'
Niyazov claimed on independence that Turkmenistan would be the new Kuwait. Bordering the Caspian Sea, the country has vast proven gas reserves - the fifth largest in the world - and plenty of oil. By 2001 this was modified to a promise that within a year every family would have 'a house, a car, and a cow with calf'. This promise was then dropped for the more ambiguous propaganda slogan that 'the 21st century is the golden age of the Turkmens'.
Yet gas production is still not back up to the levels of the early Nineties. Plans to build pipelines to Western markets in the Arabian gulf or Mediterranean have foundered, due to regional instability and Niyazov's unpredictability. The state provides free gas and water, cheap housing and bread, and for the men in Ashgabat at least, horse races. But anecdotally - for there are no hard statistics on Turkmenistan - unemployment, underemployment and non-payment of salaries are rife and worsening; state services are disintegrating; life expectancy falling. The free supply of gas and water is at the heart of all of Niyazov's claims to be a generous, successful leader. When he introduced the system 12 years ago it was supposed to remain in place for a decade before people began to pay. The anonymous Western official says, 'If these services were withdrawn there would be chaos, you'd be looking at a revolution.'
Meanwhile, despite EU and UN resolutions requesting that the Turkmen authorities co-operate with international human rights organisations, no such co-operation has ensued. Certain laws - the introduction of exit visas, the restriction of religious practice - have been amended, but in practice little has changed; people cannot leave the country freely and they are free only to practise the central religions.
Human Rights Watch believes international organisations have some leverage: 'The Turkmen government takes great pride in its UN membership. The UN must make clear that [Turkmenistan's] failure to co-operate is unacceptable.'
Aaron Rhodes, executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, says that support from major foreign governments is needed: 'Much more could be done to force peaceful change; if major world leaders with authority would acknowledge that this is a dictatorship, depriving people of rights, this would really have an effect.'
But there are other factors to consider. The US Airforce benefits from being able to fly its jets through Turkmen airspace. The vast reserves of gas and oil in Turkmenistan have been the subject of frantic lobbying by Western governments in the past, and the possibility of securing access in the future must act as a brake to any criticisms of Niyazov. In fact, a high-level Russian delegation visiting Niyazov earlier in the year praised his achievements as 'fantastic' and the Rukhnama as 'a serious philosophical work'. They also signed a co-operation agreement designed to encourage joint investment in the fishing industry, mining and, most importantly, gas production.
According to Rhodes, 'There's a tremendous tendency to support the status quo. People don't want to rock the boat, they don't need another failed state on their hands. They probably would like to see Turkmenbashi keep power.'
Erika Dailey believes the status quo will lead to disaster. 'If the trend continues, and neither economic nor political reform is introduced soon, Turkmenistan will become non-functional, a failed state.'
Robert Corzine is one of the few Western journalists to have met Niyazov. In his experience, the president is unlikely to be unduly swayed by outside influence. He recalls an interview in 1999 in which the subject of the oil- and gas-rich Caspian Sea arose: 'Niyazov got a map and said, "I'll tell you who owns the Caspian," and he took out his $1,000 pen, crossed out the word Azeri Oilfield [property of Azerbaijan] and wrote Serdar ['leader' - his name] Oilfield in its place. Stabbing the map he said, "That's mine, that's mine." When I left the meeting, his then foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who was more of a suave character, said, "You can tone down some of the things the president said." But Niyazov, who had overheard, said: "No, he can write whatever he wants." The next day when the story appeared the Azerbaijanis sent gunboats out.'
Despite a recent heart bypass operation there are no serious indications that Niyazov has a succession plan: an election mooted for 2008 is expected to disappear like previous dates, and he will almost certainly rule until he dies. According to one Western observer Niyazov won't be worried about succession, either: 'He wants to leave the greatest mosque and all his buildings and monuments, and go down in history as the great salvation of Turkmenistan and the greatest Khan - greater even than Tamburlaine or Ghengis Khan.'

Extract from Independent obituary:

Suparmurat Niyazov

Andrew Osborn

Independent 22 December 2006

Following in the footsteps of China's Mao Tse-tung, Niyazov published his own version of the Little Red Book. Called the Ruhnama, the tome of spiritual musings was said to be "a moral guide" for Turkmens and was required reading on school and university curricula. A mixture of revisionist history, his own poetry and spiritual musings, the book and its teachings effectively became a new religion replacing the ideology of Lenin, Marx and Engels. It was also a way of ensuring that the mostly Muslim nation did not embrace Islam as strongly as other nations in the region: Niyazov was a fierce opponent of Islamist radicalism, seeing it as a threat to his own hegemony.
There was no facet of daily Turkmen life too small or trivial for Niyazov's often ludicrous decrees. He banned television presenters from wearing make-up because, he said, he found it difficult to distinguish between male and female presenters. He ordered a palace hewn of ice to be erected in the desert; closed libraries and hospitals in large swathes of Turkmenistan on the grounds that "they were not needed"; dumbed down education; and abolished pensions for thousands of elderly people on a whim. Long hair, beards and gold teeth were outlawed, and Niyazov, who once openly compared himself to a deity, even stipulated what exactly it meant to be "old". Childhood lasted until 13, he decreed, adolescence until 25 and youth until 37. Old age, he insisted, did not begin until 85.

Intrigue Follows Death of a President for Life

C J Chivers

New York Times 22 December 2006

MOSCOW, Dec. 21 — Saparmurat Niyazov, the authoritarian president of Turkmenistan died unexpectedly early Thursday, the Turkmen government said, raising questions about succession and stability in a nation that is essential to European energy supplies.
Mr. Niyazov, who gave himself the name Turkmenbashi, or the Head of All Turkmen, had ruled his sparsely populated nation since becoming chairman of the Turkmen Communist Party in 1985, when the country was a Soviet republic.
He easily weathered the Soviet Union’s collapse, becoming the president of the newly independent Turkmenistan and pushing through a Constitution that concentrated power in his hands. He then embarked upon a career as president for life.
While other post-Soviet countries suffered disorder and in some cases revolutions or war, Mr. Niyazov lorded over Turkmenistan with a sprawling security apparatus and a well-developed cult of personality.
His critics labeled him a ruthless dictator and an accomplished embezzler, who siphoned profits from the country’s natural resources into offshore accounts, while the bulk of the country’s five million residents lived near poverty in the desert state, surrounded by portraits and ostentatious statues of the ruler.
He was 66 and had suffered from heart disease but never publicly anointed a successor.
Intrigue immediately followed his death. According to the Turkmen Constitution, the chairman of the Majlis, the country’s lower house of Parliament, becomes the acting president upon a president’s death.
But in Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital, power passed instead to a deputy prime minister, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, and the state news agency announced that the prosecutor general had opened a criminal investigation of the Majlis chairman, Ovezgeldy Atayev.
It also said that the People’s Council, the upper house of Parliament, would hold an emergency meeting on Tuesday. Under the Constitution, the council selects presidential candidates, who would run in a special election in two months, according to Michael J. Denison, a professor at the University of Leeds who specializes in Turkmen politics.
Turkmenistan, located in Central Asia and adjacent to Iran, Afghanistan and the Caspian Sea, contains many of the world’s largest natural gas fields, and provides gas to Russia and European countries.
Foreign governments and energy analysts expressed misgivings about the expected succession battles ahead, and what they might mean for stability and intense international competition for the gas reserves.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, encouraged Turkmenistan at a joint appearance in Moscow to conduct a legal and orderly succession. “We hope that the transfer of power will remain within the framework of the law,” Mr. Lavrov said, according to Interfax.
Goldman Sachs sent a note to investors saying the abrupt political change “throws into question the country’s political stability and control over its substantial natural gas exports.”
It added that with Mr. Niyazov gone, the United States and perhaps the EU
might compete with Russia and urge Turkmenistan to consider a new pipeline under the Caspian Sea that would weaken the position of Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled gas monopoly. Gazprom relies in part on Turkmen gas to meet commitments to its customers.
Though there is no clear front-runner to succeed Mr. Niyazov after his long reign, there is speculation about a wide range of possible candidates, from members of Mr. Niyazov’s circle to exiled opposition leaders, at least two of whom said they planned to return home.
Mr. Niyazov’s son, Murat, is also a potential candidate, in part because in 2005 Mr. Niyazov arranged for the deletion of a line in the Constitution requiring the president to be an ethnic Turkmen.
Mr. Niyazov was married to a Russian woman; their son is half Turkmen. The constitutional change allowed him to qualify for the post, although it was not clear if he had the backing of any of the country’s five principal tribes, or if he would be able to overcome his reputation as a playboy.
Mr. Berdymukhammedov, the acting president, is related to Mr. Niyazov. But Mr. Denison said in an e-mail message that he was a relatively unknown political figure and “probably not a long-term successor.”
One opposition figure, Khudaiberdy Orazov, a former chairman of Turkmenistan’s central bank, said that the surprise appointment of Mr. Berdymukhammedov and the criminal charges against the Majlis chairman signaled that the country’s security services were influencing events.
The security services, Mr. Orazov said, which are successors to the K.G.B., played a large role in Mr. Niyazov’s rule and will try to select a president of their choosing. “We’ve been afraid of this, because having lots of blood on their hands, they are a force that does not want democratic rule,” he said on the telephone from Sweden, where he lives in exile.
Global Witness, a private organization in London that campaigns against corruption, expressed concern about money that had been under Mr. Niyazov’s control, held at Deutsche Bank of Germany. It said that $2 billion to $3 billion was in an account used to accept payments from Turkmenistan’s gas customers, but that Mr. Niyazov routinely used the account for personal expenses and vanity projects.
Gavin Hayman, a campaigner for the organization, said by telephone that in a possible power vacuum in Ashgabat that account and others were vulnerable to further abuse. Global Witness urged Deutsche Bank to freeze the accounts until an internationally recognized government assumed power and transparency measures were in place.
Inside Turkmenistan, a country largely closed to Westerners, there were signs of official mourning.
Holiday decorations were removed from the streets of the capital. State television showed a portrait of Mr. Niyazov, accompanied by the sounds of the funeral march from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, according to a resident of Ashgabat reached by telephone.
Critics of Mr. Niyazov recalled him as a dictator who created an almost otherworldly totalitarian state.
Mr. Niyazov forbade independent news media and opposition parties, jailed rivals or drove them into exile, and imposed his name, words and image on all manner of public discourse and life. His face appears on Turkmen currency. His name, given to streets and buildings, is in such abundant local use it was even decreed to replace the word January on the official Turkmen calendar.
His pronouncements, many of them disconnected from the normal affairs of state, were sometimes strange enough to assume an irreverent life on the Internet. He banned video games, gold teeth, opera and ballet, and once encouraged his people to chew on bones — good, he said, for their dentistry.
It was the sort of declaration that made him the most bizarre dictator in a region dominated by autocrats, but was a small part of his political canon. “Ruhnama,” his semi-autobiographical book of philosophy, poems and instructions for moral living, is required reading in colleges and schools, and is displayed throughout the country, including in mosques.
In Prague, Yovshan Annagurban, of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, said it was difficult to predict what course Turkmenistan would take after suffering decades of repression that extended back to the Soviet era. It had intensified anew and became even stranger in Mr. Niyazov’s time.
“The problem is he destroyed everything,” Mr. Annagurban said. He corrupted everything and everyone around him. People at the top as well as ordinary people do not trust anyone and everyone.

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