The End of Turkmenistan's Autocrat

Growing up on Ian Flemming novels and James Bond films leaves one, or at least it left me, with a deep appreciation for eccentric villains.  Who can forget Dr. No, with his strong but clumsy bionic hands and secret underground island lair? Or Christopher Walken's performance as Max Zorin, the byproduct of Nazi medical experimentation-turned-earthquake-inducing madman? 

Admittedly, Bond villains have become somewhat boring in recent years.  Now the only requirements seem to be screwy politics and the occasional DNA replacement therapy or amphetamine jones.  It makes one wonder - where have all our whack-job villains gone?  Thankfully, global heads of state have filled the void.

In North Korea, they are blessed with Kim Jong-il, the sexually deviant cinephile with an impressive $700,000 per year Hennessy budget (say what you will about Qusay Hussein, at least he had the good taste to opt for Johnnie Walker Blue).  Between administering his slave state and giving his assistants illegitimate children, the Dear Leader is, by no coincidence, a legendary James Bond fan.  And we have Colonel Gaddafi, who maintains a staff of personal bodyguards trained in advanced martial arts and weapons use.  All forty are - of course - beautiful African models hand-selected by the Colonel.  If that isn't Ian Flemming material, I don't know what is.

In Turkmenistan, we had Saparmurat Niyazov.  Niyazov never took center stage in the world of whacky dictators - he lacked the barbarity of Islam Karimov and never had Kim Jong-il's fashion sense - but he was nonetheless a tyrant of cinematic proportions.  Known by decree as Serder Turkmenbashi, or Great Leader of all Turkmen, Niyazov died on December 21, 2006. 

Born to humble origins at the outbreak of the Second World War, Niyazov lived his early years in the industrial capital of Asgabat.  His father was killed while fighting on the Eastern Front, and in 1948, the rest of his family perished in the great earthquake that destroyed much of Asgabat.  After spending his remaining years in Soviet orphanages and with distant relatives, Niyazov joined the Communist Party in 1962.  Rising quickly through the ranks, Niyazov became First Secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party in 1985. 

As a Communist party-boss, Niyazov was in a unique position when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.  Almost hesitantly, Turkmenistan was one of the last of the Soviet states to declare independence.  And for good reason: after centuries of foreign rule by or conflict from the Macedonians, Persian, Arabs, British, and of course the Russians, Turkmen had no real record of self-rule to speak of.  But Niyazov was up to the challenge - who needs capable government, a sense of history, or national identity when you have Serdar Turkmenbashi?

After establishing Turkmenistan, he did what many post-Soviet leaders did: govern incompetently and rule by whimsical fiat.  Some of Niyazov's actions were within the bounds of what any reasonable dictator suffering from egomania might do.  For instance, the town of Krasnovodsk was renamed Turkmenbasy, after his own title "Leader of all Ethnic Turkmens."  Fair game - his country, his city, right?  He placed statues of himself and his mother all over the country - including in the middle of the Karakum Desert - and renamed airports and meteorites after himself and his family.  In defense of the ubiquitous statutes and paintings, Niyazov explained - "I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets - but it's what the people want." 

To solve budget shortfalls, he closed rural libraries (arguing that rural folk don't read anyway), abolished all hospitals outside of the capital, stopped paying the pensions of more than 100,000 elderly people and demanded they return the previous two years' payment, and built a $100 million mosque in memory of his mother.  Wait - no - the first three were to solve the budget shortfalls, the last one was just for the heck of it. 

Now Niyazov could have gone on mismanaging his country like any other dictator, but instead he decided to go a little nuts.  Soon, various months and days were named after various things Turkmen (in case you're wondering, he got January - "Turkmenbashi" - and Tuesday got axed in favor of "Young Day.")  In celebration of his never making war on anything but Turkmenistan's own gross domestic product, Niyazov built the Neutrality Arch - a 12-meter high golden likeness of himself atop the largest building in Asgabat that rotates to meet the rising sun.  From this Asgabat high ground, he watches over the city, day and night. 

And he watches over from everywhere else as well.  His image appears overlooking nearly every street corner and park.  His face is on the planes of the national airline, as well as bottles of the national vodka (given the difficulty associated with getting in and out of Turkmenistan, his people no doubt see a lot more of the latter than the former). 

Realizing the dangers they posed to Turkmen culture, he banned ballet and opera.  Niyazov did away with the Hippocratic Oath and instead required physicians to swear an oath to - who else? - Serder Turkmenbashi.  And despite ruling a largely desert country with hot summers and mild winters, Niyazov ordered the construction of an ice palace near the capital (perhaps taking a cue from Die Another Day?). 

Thinking of growing a beard?  Not in Turkmenistan, you're not.  And no smoking either.  After quitting smoking, Niyazov set the precedent for New York City Republicans by banning smoking in all public places.  He renamed both bread and April after his mother.  He banned car radios, lip-syncing, and recorded music at weddings.  He never did like dogs, so he banned them from the capital city. 

Of course, Niyazov also had a compassionate streak.  Niyazov stood bravely against the laws of supply and demand when he declared that free water, gas, and electricity would be the right of the Turkmen people through 2030.  Of course, his country lacks the infrastructure to produce said water, gas, or electricity, and shortages are widespread, but it was the thought that counted. 

Then there is the issue of his book.  The Ruhnama (the Book of the Soul) is a mix of autobiography, history, and moral lessons released by Niyazov in 2001.  After Soviet textbooks were banned from schools, only Ruhnama remained in libraries, and students of all ages are required to spend one day a week studying the text. 

Answering critics of his cult of personality, Niyazov confessed modestly, "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."  If Niyazov would do all that for a leader who denies his liberty, squanders his country's resources, and, chances are, leave him in abject poverty, one can only imagine the virgin sacrifices he would willingly give up to a leader capable of even feigning competence. 

The "Great Leader of All Turkmen" wasn't incompetent at all tasks - he showed dedication and some cunning when it came to the oppression of his people.  Religious activity is so heavily regulated that various religions, including Christianity, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Hare Krishna often opt to remain underground.  Membership in groups calling for increased transparency or freedom of speech is punishable by imprisonment.  Homosexuality is punished with up to five years in prison (giving Turkmenistan, depressingly, one of the most liberal records on homosexual rights in the region).    

Reporters Without Borders places Niyazov's Turkmenistan second worst in the world in the World Press Freedom Index - behind only Kim Jong-Il's slave state.  If one of Niyazov's subjects is caught seeking political asylum in the west - or makes the mistake of returning after escaping - they are subject to imprisonment. 

In 2002, Niyazov's motorcade was fired upon by a group of dissidents.  Widely rumored to have been staged by Niyazov as an excuse to crack down on his political enemies, Niyazov proceeded to have hundreds arrested, including his former foreign minister and a Soviet-born U.S. citizen, Leonid Komarovsky.  Although later freed after pressure from the US government, Komarovsky was beaten ("with a big stick, like baseball," he later said), drugged, and forced to read a pro-Niyazov statement which was later show to the Turkmenistan parliament on a three-story-high screen (message clear?).  After broadcasting the hundreds of forced confessions, Niyazov stated "we don't need any other evidence." 

State television reported President Niyazov's passing on December 21.  His heart having failed him, he left behind a country with an uncertain future.  The constitution requires that the chairman of the parliament assume the presidency.  Only thing is - the chairman, Ovezgelby Ataev, is in prison.  Initial reports suggest that Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow, head of the commission tasked with organizing Niyazov's funeral, has been declared temporary president. 

In the end, Niyazov took a country of enormous potential wealth - Turkmenistan sits atop one of the world's largest gas reserves - and managed to leave the Turkmen people in poverty, with the highest infant mortality rate and lowest life expectancy in the region.  In a world filled with slave owners like Kim Jong-Il, genocide enablers such as Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, and the apocalyptic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it is easy to forget men like Saparmurat Niyazov.  He came from nothing, established a nation, and failed as a leader.  His life may read like something from an Ian Flemming novel, but sadly his quirks harned an entire people and left a vital region with an uncertain future. What transpires in Turkmenistan's coming power struggle will determine whether the world - and the Turkmen people themselves - are better off for his passing. 

Christopher Armstrong is an attorney practicing in Washington, DC.  He can be reached at .

If you experience technical problems, please write to