Turkmenistan's authoritarian president dies at 66

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The Independent Online

President Saparmurat Niyazov — the ruler of energy-rich Turkmenistan who even renamed months and days of the week after himself and his family — has died aged 66.

A terse report from state television said Niyazov died of heart failure and showed a black-framed portrait of the man who had ordered citizens to refer to him as "Turkmenbashi" — the Father of All Turkmen.

Niyazov underwent major heart surgery in Germany in 1997 and last month publicly acknowledged for the first time that he had heart disease. But he did not seem seriously ill; two weeks ago he appeared in public to formally open an amusement park named after him outside the capital.

Niyazov had led Turkmenistan since 1985, when it was still a Soviet republic. After the 1991 Soviet collapse, he retained control and began creating an elaborate personality cult and turning Turkmenistan into one of the most oppressive of the ex-Soviet states.

He ordered that the months and days of the week be renamed after himself and his family, and statues of him were erected throughout the nation. He is listed as author of the "Rukhnama" (Book of the Soul) that was required reading in schools. Children pledged allegiance to him every morning.

He crushed all opposition and drew condemnation from human rights groups and Western governments.

A 2002 alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov sparked a severe crackdown, leading to dozens of arrests that were criticized by international human rights groups and the US government. A former foreign minister, Boris Shikhmuradov, was named as the mastermind of the plot and sentenced to life in prison after a Stalinist-style show trial broadcast on TV that included a taped confession where he said he was a drug addict and hired mercenaries for the attack while living in Russia.

It was unclear who may be in line to replace Niyazov or how the succession process would be conducted. The funeral is to be held on Sunday.

Turkmenistan — a majority Muslim country dominated by the vast Kara Kum desert — has the world's fifth-largest natural gas reserves, but Niyazov failed to convert that wealth into prosperity for his country's 5 million people.

Earlier this year, the eccentric leader announced he would provide citizens with natural gas and power free of charge through 2030. But he has also tapped the country's vast energy wealth for outlandish projects — a huge, man-made lake in the Kara Kum desert, a vast cypress forest to change the desert climate, an ice palace outside the capital, a ski resort and a 130-foot pyramid.

Niyazov was born Feb. 19, 1940. His father died in World War II and the rest of his family was killed in an earthquake that leveled Ashgabat in 1948. He was raised in an orphanage and later in the home of distant relatives.

Niyazov attended Leningrad Polytechnic Institute in Russia to study power engineering and worked at the Bezmeinskaya Power Station near Ashgabat after his graduation in 1966.

Named head of the Communist Party in Turkmenistan in 1985, Niyazov was named president of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic in October 1990 and led his nation through its 1991 independence. He was elected president of the new independent Turkmenistan in 1992 with a reported 99.5 percent of the vote. In 1994, an alleged 99.9 percent of voters supported a referendum allowing him to remain in office for a second five-year term without having to face new elections.

In 1999, he was effectively made president for life after parliament removed all term limits, but an August 2002 gathering of the country's People's Council — a hand-picked assembly of Niyazov loyalists — nonetheless went further and endorsed him as president for life.

Under Niyazov's rule, Turkmenistan adopted a strict policy of neutrality and spurned joining regional security or economic organizations that sprung up in the wake of the Soviet collapse.

But Niyazov supported the US-led anti-terror campaign in neighboring Afghanistan, allowing coalition airplanes to use Turkmen airspace and humanitarian agencies to pass through to deliver aid.

Niyazov also pursued strong nationalistic policies to encourage the use of the Turkmen language over Russian and banned access to Russian-language media, leading to an increased exodus of some of the country's most educated citizens and decimating its school system. Secondary education has been reduced in Turkmenistan to a required nine years, causing human rights groups to complain of a deliberate attempt to dumb down the population and prevent dissent.