Farewell to the Turkmenbashi

The despot who banned beards and named a planet after himself has died. Stephen Castle reports
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The Independent Online

Turkmenistan may be in mourning but fans of opera, ballet, circuses and orchestras - and even owners of car radios - in the central Asian nation will be quietly celebrating the passing of Saparmurat Niyazov, possibly the most eccentric dictator in the world.

The self-declared Turkmenbashi, or father of the Turkmen, ruled the energy-rich but impoverished country according to his very peculiar peccadillos, outlawing a host of products and practices that most wielders of absolute power have not ordinarily been bothered by.

Hisdeath has left a vacuum in the central Asian nation which he ruled with a North-Korean-style personality cult. Mr Niyazov renamed the month of January after himself and squandered vast amounts of money on vanity projects including the construction of a gold-leaf covered statue of himself that rotates to face the sun.

Yesterday, Dmitrij Rupel, Slovenia's foreign minister, recalled an odd encounter in the marbled and wood-panelled presidential palace in Ashgabat last year. Mr Rupel said that, when he was invited into the president's chandeliered office, Mr Niyazov "started to criticise my beard and asked whether I was from Iran".

Facial hair - along with gold fillings - was high on the list of Mr Niyazov's arbitrary dislikes and consequently most of Turkmenistan's male population were meticulously clean shaven.

Worse was to come when Mr Rupel challenged the president on his appalling human rights record. "I had an unpleasant moment when I asked him about torture in prisons," Mr Rupel told The Independent. "I had very, very reliable information. He replied 'tell me where?'" When evidence was produced from a file, Mr Niyazov said bluntly: "Throw away these papers!"

Last month, Mr Niyazov, who was 66 years old, acknowledged he had a cardiac condition. His death has been attributed to a heart attack. A terse report from state television said the president died early on Thursday and an announcer in a dark suit read a list of Mr Niyazov's accomplishments. His funeral is scheduled to take place on Sunday.

For several years since having heart bypass surgery the president had been preoccupied with his appearance. So enthusiastic was his makeover that his dyed hair was blacker in real life than in earlier photos that appeared on bank notes.

Mr Niyazov had not nominated a successor. According to Turkmen law, the president is succeeded by the head of the legislative body, the People's Assembly. Predictably, that post was held by Mr Niyazov himself.

The country's deputy prime inister Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has been named head of the commission handling the funeral and acting head of state, leaving him in pole position to succeed. But so closed is the country that little is known about its political factions. Turkmenistan, which may have the world's fifth biggest supplies of natural gas, is of key interest to outsiders, particularly Russia.

It is not known how many political prisoners there are in Turkmenistan and Mr Niyazov exploited the "war on terror" to categorise them as terrorists.

Yesterday, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and its affiliate the Turkmenistan Initiative for Human Rights called for the release of political detainees and prisoners of conscience.

Aaron Rhodes, the federation's director, said: "We can only hope that his successors will address the deficits in education, healthcare and children's rights resulting from his policies, and honour the fundamental rights and freedoms the people have been cynically denied."

Thomas Gomart, from the French Institute of International Relations in Paris said: "It is unclear whether we will see a new autocrat who tries to conserve the regime or whether there will be an opening up of the country. The uncertainty poses problems for regional stability in central Asia."

The consequences will be important for gas importers in Russia. Turkmenistan has been secretive about its energy reserves and is thought to have signed contracts to provide more gas than it can produce.

Whatever the future holds, many of Turkmenistan's citizens will be relieved to see the end of one of the strangest regimes on the planet. Mr Niyazov's random set of dislikes included car radios, operas, ballets, circuses and orchestras. Some were banned others disappeared when Mr Niyazov made his views known.

Traditional folk music was encouraged but healthcare and education were scaled down outside Ashgabat - although about 90 per cent of the population live outside the capital, many in poverty. Alcohol is available to the overwhelmingly Muslim population and several brands of vodka sport the president's face on their label. But smoking out on the street brings an instant fine. Though most of Turkmenistan is covered by desert Mr Niyazov had ambitious plans to build an ice-rink.

Under his rule Turkmenistan lived under the writ of the Rukhnama, a rambling, 400-page, book penned by the deceased ruler. Itblends personal experiences with homilies, extracts from the Koran, national legends and Turkoman history. In the country's calendar January is known as "Turkmenbashi" and April has been renamed after the deceased leader's mother and September is called Rukhnama.

Mr Niyazov was born in 1940 and lost his father during the Second World War and his mother in the earthquake that struck Ashgabat in 1948. Brought up in an orphanage, he trained as an engineer then rose through the Communist Party to its most senior post in Turkmenistan.

As the USSR disintegrated, he became the first president of Turkmenistan in October 1990 winning an unopposed vote. He tightened his grip after November 2002 when the presidential motorcade came under attack, in an incident that prompted a series of show trials and a purge of potential rivals.

Though some regarded the deceased president as paranoid or unhinged, Mr Rupel got a different impression during his meeting last year. "He knew what he was saying," said Mr Rupel. "He was a politician of the old, Soviet, type. He was a strong figure but he was difficult. I hope that they will now choose another strong leader, but a more democratic one."

Eccentric edicts

* The president renamed the month of January after himself and April after his mother

* He banned hospitals and libraries from all areas of Turkmenistan apart from Ashgabat

* A planet of the Taurus constellation, a crater on the Moon and a mountain peak were named after him

* He banned ballet, opera and circus as indecent. He banned singers from performing to recorded music and newscasters from wearing make-up

* He banned gold teeth, beards and long hair for young people

* When foreign leaders met him, Niyazov often presented them with a horse

* Set up a Ministry of Justice to punish amoral behaviour

* A statue of Niyazov coated in gold leaf rotates to face the sun

* His face appears on bottles of several brands of vodka, left

* Issued a decreed to give some food away free of charge: bread, salt and a ration of rice

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