WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 476 part 2, December 22, 2006

TURKMENISTAN: POST-DICTATORSHIP BLUES  Muted reactions to the death of an 
omnipresent figure – and uncertainty about what now awaits the country.  By 
IWPR staff in Central Asia


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Muted reactions to the death of an omnipresent figure – and uncertainty about 
what now awaits the country.

By IWPR staff in Central Asia

Saparmyrat Niazov’s face dominated television, newspapers and billboards for a 
decade, and his decisions had a huge impact on people’s lives in Turkmenistan. 
He was almost deified in the personality cult he built up around himself, so 
proof that he was after all mortal has had a profoundly traumatic effect on his 

Loved or unloved, Turkmenbashi the Great, the Leader of the Turkmen, will be 
irreplaceable. The politicians he abused and humiliated over the years now face 
the unenviable task of holding together a system that revolved entirely around 
their master.

There were no newspapers on December 22 – unsurprisingly, as there was no more 
news of the president’s activities to fill the pages. State television simply 
carried hourly repeats of official announcements put out by an emergency 
meeting of the State Security Council and the government.

The authorities have reacted by closing off Turkmenistan’s already limited 
contact with the outside world. Flights and trains are not being allowed into 
the country, and government institutions have found their restricted internet 
access cut off altogether.

Inside the country, however, the streets are quiet and people are going about 
their business almost as if nothing has happened. Offices and shops are open as 
usual. The only outward signs of mourning are the black ribbons hanging from 
government buildings, and the municipal workers taking down the Christmas trees 
which in this country mark New Year.

On the streets of Ashgabat, the mood is of grief mixed with apathy. Most of 
all, people seem unsure what will happen next.

“I realise something awful has happened,” said Gulnara Hojaeva, a doctor. “I’m 
in shock. I can’t do anything, I wander round my apartment like an automaton 
not knowing what to do.”

Others expressed grief, including both older people fearful of change as well 
as youngsters who have grown up in the strange post-Soviet world created by 
Niazov and know little else.

“How will we live now?” asked housewife Ejegul Saryeva, weeping.” Niazov did so 
much for us.”

A schoolteacher in Ashgabat reported tearful scenes in her classroom. “I can’t 
teach lessons – the children are crying and saying it’s the end of the world,” 
she said. 

If some people were relieved to be rid of their despotic ruler, they were not 
prepared to say so in public. That is unsurprising, since surveillance was key 
to Niazov’s grip on power. Telephone calls are now being been tapped even more 
assiduously than usual, and the line goes dead the moment anyone starts talking 
about the president’s death. 

Yet whispered conversations take place - passing on news and also the 
conspiracy theories that abound when the state media starve people of 

One popular story has it that Niazov did not die of a heart attack, but was 
suffocated. Proponents of this theory ask how officials could otherwise have 
moved so fast with their arrangements that six hours after the president’s 
death, the announcement on state television was accompanied by a female choir 
dressed in black and a backdrop of huge pictures showing Niazov from childhood 
to his time as head of state.

The public face of government is now Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly 
Berdymukhammedov, appointed acting president by the emergency government 
meeting. He looks unnervingly like Niazov.

The role of interim head of state would normally have gone to the speaker of 
parliament, Ovezgeldy Ataev, but the official report from the meeting said he 
had been ruled out because he was facing criminal charges. Subsequent 
statements said Ataev had been appointed as Berdymukhammedov’s deputy.  

The question now is whether Berdymukhammedov is merely a transitional figure or 
whether he represents a grouping that intends to fill the vacuum of power. 

“It’s no surprise that Berdymukhammedov has taken control,” said sociologist 
Geldy Berdyev. “Niazov himself placed the executive in a superior position to 
the legislature.”

He warned, “This arrangement is very dangerous. It seems Berdymukhammedov plans 
to hold onto power. If he seizes control, the Turkmenbashi regime will be 

The next step is to convene the Halk Maslakhaty – a national congress with more 
legislative powers than parliament itself – for an emergency meeting on 
December 26. The congress must formalise arrangements for the transition of 
power and set a date for a presidential election. What is unclear is whether it 
will do more than rubber-stamp decisions already taken by the security council 
and the cabinet. Its unwieldy size and reputation for obsequious loyalty to 
President Niazov suggest the Halk Maslakhaty meeting will produce no debate or 
radical solutions.

In keeping with Muslim tradition, the funeral will take place as soon as 
possible. Niazov’s body will lie in state in the Presidential Palace on the 
morning of December 24, and the interment will take place the same day in his 
home village of Kipchak, just outside Ashgabat. The period of mourning has been 
extended from December 26 to December 30.

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REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA provides the international community with a unique 
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