Turkmenbashi’s dead. As Blake Hounshell noted on Foreign Policy Passport, “He will be missed by approximately … nobody.”
That’s not entirely true. The editors of News of the Weird, for instance, probably shed a tear or two. They will have to redouble their efforts to cover other wacky dictators like Kim Jong Il and Alexander Lukashenko.
Saparmurat Niyazov – also known as “Father of all Turkmen” or “Turkmenbashi” – ran a cult of personality like almost no other. While stridently insisting that it made him uncomfortable to see pictures of himself all over his nation – he once said “I’m personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets – but it’s what the people want” – he built a nation that was basically a Turkmenbashi theme park. Indeed, one of the last times he was seen in public, he was riding a brightly colored toy train at the opening of the “World of Turkmenbashi Tales” children’s theme park. (RIA Novosti has a special section on Turkmenbashi’s most eccentric “reforms”.)
Niyazov ordered construction of a lakeside resort in the desert, a ski resort on the sunbaked foothills of the Iranian border, an ice palace with a habitat for penguins in one of the world’s hottest capitals. In downtown Ashgabat, a giant golden statue of Niyazov rotates to face the sun – the running joke amongst Turkmenistan watchers was that the sun actually moved to follow the statue…
But Turkmenbashi wasn’t just about wacky policy declarations, like naming months after himself, his mother and his favorite poet. No, he managed to create one of the world’s most repressive media environments, to turn the country’s medical system over to the military, to dismantle the educational system, creating a generation educated only to work the cotton fields or in the natural gas industry, and to create a standard of living comparable with the poorest of sub-Saharan African nations, despite having the fifth-largest reserves of natural gas in the world.
There’s no doubt that Niyazov’s death is an early Christmas present for the Turkmen opposition, and, arguably, the whole nation of Turkmenistan. But there are serious questions about what the future will be like for the nation. There are serious questions about succession, and questions about whether a nation founded on a cult of personality can survive the death of its leader. It’s greatly in the interest of regional players that Turkmenistan continue pumping oil and gas… but what sort of government will emerge from the shadows of deep authoritarianism is anyone’s guess.
If you’re keeping track of the guessing game, let me recommend Nathan Hamm’s Registan, which is already all over the story. New Eurasia also covers the country – they offer the intriguing speculation that Niyazov has been dead for several days and that a political activist was arrested to prevent him from spreading the news to Moscow. The post also includes an ominous warning about the possible disintegration of the state after Niyazov’s death: “The population will not cheer the passing of a despot, but they may come to mourn the passing of a deeply compromised stability.”