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Saparmurat Niyazov

President of Turkmenistan

Saparmurat Niyazov, politician: born Ashgabat, Soviet Union 19 February 1940; First Secretary of Central Committee of Communist Party of Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic 1985-91; President of Turkmenistan 1991-2006; married (one son, one daughter); died Ashgabat, Turkmenistan 21 December 2006.

Saparmurat Niyazov, or "The Great Turkmenbashi" as he liked to call himself, was one of the world's most eccentric and reclusive megalomaniacs. The full-faced former engineer ruled over Turkmenistan, a vast energy-rich country in Central Asia that used to be part of the Soviet Union, for 21 years.

Internationally, he was perhaps best known for naming days of the week and months of the year after himself or his relatives and for abolishing the Turkmen word for bread and replacing it with his late mother's name. Though his often bizarre decrees prompted hilarity outside the country, there was nothing funny about life inside a country he ruthlessly fashioned in his own image and where the minutiae of daily life were regimented to a degree that drew parallels with George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Niyazov tolerated no dissent or opposition, shunned contact with the outside world, issued whimsical decrees, and nurtured a neo-Stalinist cult of personality around himself. Human rights groups claimed he used torture, disappearances, arbitrary detentions, house demolitions, forced labour and exile to silence criticism. Indeed his stifling authoritarian leadership style and the closed nature of his desert kingdom prompted some analysts to dub Turkmenistan "the North Korea of Central Asia".

Traditionally Turkmenistan, a largely arid desert nation that borders Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, enjoys a low profile on the global stage. However, strategically it is deemed to be vitally important and is home to some of the region's biggest reserves of natural gas that supply countries as far afield as Ukraine. Its proximity to Iran and Afghanistan mean it is of great interest to Washington and Moscow - who both tried to forge good relations with Niyazov.

Born in Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital, in 1940, one year before Fascist Germany attacked the Soviet Union, Niyazov had a loner's childhood. His father died during the war that followed and the remainder of his family were wiped out in a devastating earthquake that destroyed much of Ashgabat in 1948. Niyazov spent his early years in an orphanage.

He was secretive about his background and those details that were disclosed were romanticised. However, he is known to have studied engineering in the then Leningrad in the early 1960s. The young engineer then moved back to Turkmenistan and took a job at a power station near Ashgabat. But it was his decision in 1962 to join the Communist Party of the Soviet Union that shaped his life.

An efficient apparatchik with a flair for building alliances and sidelining political opponents, he rose rapidly through the ranks of the Party. In 1985, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev appointed him head of what was then the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic and boss of the local Communist Party. Niyazov was never to relinquish that power and weathered the collapse of the Soviet Union to steer his country of five million people into a new isolationist era.

When hardliners attempted a coup against Gorbachev in 1991 Niyazov was on the plotters' side, believing that the Soviet Union needed a return to a more authoritarian style of leadership after the relative freedom of glasnost. But when that coup failed and the Soviet Union began to unravel Niyazov followed the lead of other Soviet party bosses and led his country to independence, becoming its first president.

Elections in Niyazov's Turkmenistan were never deemed free or fair by Western observers though and the self-styled "Father of the People" won improbably convincing victories, frequently clinching 99.5 per cent of the vote. In 1999 he went one further and had himself declared president for life though he later suggested that he might be willing to hold democratic elections in 2010.

Niyazov repeatedly set new standards in dictator eccentricity and scattered his capital with posters and grandiose statues of himself. The month of January was renamed after him and the Turkmen word for bread replaced with the name of his late mother, Gurbansoltan, whose statues also litter Ashgabat.

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.

In his many public portraits Niyazov looked to be in rude health and he was seen in public only two weeks ago. But he underwent major heart surgery in 1997 and was told to quit smoking by his doctors. He later ordered all his government ministers to follow suit and banned smoking in public places.

Andrew Osborn