Trans Eurasia travel

Your virtual guide to Eurasia! Let's travel together!

Saparmurat Niyazov's rule

The politics of post-independence Turkmenistan has been dominated by one man, Saparmurat Niyazov. Born on 19 February 1940, he was orphaned as a child. His father, Atamurat, was killed in World War II, and his mother and brothers died in the Ashgabat earthquake of 1948. He was raised first in an orphanage, and later with distant relatives. Niyazov graduated from the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute with a degree in power engineering, and started his working career at the Buzmeyin (now Abadan) power station, west of Ashgabat. He had joined the Communist Party in 1962, and rose through its ranks, becoming the head ot the Ashgabat administration in 1980 and First Secretary of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan in 1985.

On Turkmenistan's independence in 1991, Niyazov had already established a stronghold on the organs of power, and was able to consolidate his control thereafter. The Communist Party of Turkmenistan was simply renamed the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, with Niyazov as its chairman. The new constitution of May 1992 further focused powers on the president, stipulating that the head of state was also the head ol government, as chairman of the cabinet of ministers. President Niyazov also serves as the commander-in-chief of Turkmenistan's armed forces.

In June 1992, Niyazov was re-elected president, again unopposed, this time securing a reported 99.5% of the vote. At the end of 1993, Turkmenistan's parliament voted to extend President Niyazov's term of office until 2002, to allow the completion of the president's ten-year development programme. This extension was ratified in a referendum on 15 January 1994 when, according to the official results, a mesmerising 99.99% of the electorate voted in favour. The December 1999 session of Turkmenistan's People's Council (Halk Maslahaty) voted to make Niyazov president for life. Niyazov has since repeatedly suggested, usually to staged cries of disapproval from his supporters, that he will aim to retire on or around 2010, when he will be 70. In April 2005, he announced that new presidential elections, with a range of candidates, would be held in 2009, and that he would himself stand down at that time.

The Halk Maslahaty, with more than 2,500 members, is in theory the supreme legislative body of Turkmenistan, empowered to amend the constitution and approve the overall direction of government policy. Only a small minority of the delegates are elected; the majority are state officials and functionaries of organisations supporting the regime. The Halk Maslahaty has met since 1996 in conjunction with the Council of Elderly and the Galkynysh National Revival Movement. It meets roughly once a year: President Niyazov has traditionally announced the date and venue, set the agenda, and chaired the meeting. His proposals, except where these concern the possibility of new presidential elections, are invariably approved with unanimity. The speeches from delegates are centred on praise for the president's work and ideas and on proposals to grant new awards to the president.

Turkmenistan's parliament (Mejlis) comprises 50 deputies, elected every five years from single-member constituencies. Although the 2004 Mijlis elections were contested, all candidates were supporters of the regime, whose pre-election manifestos proudly emphasised their commitment to implementing the policies of President Niyazov. In practice, the Mejlis is a legislative rubber-stamp.

Niyazov was frequently firing his ministers and senior officials, accusing them of corruption or incompetence, as part of an apparent policy to ensure that no potential rivals can develop a power base. Domestic opposition was not allowed, and rare small-scale demonstrations, for example against the demolition of houses in Ashgabat, were quickly broken up by the authorities. While Niyazov had talked in general terms about the eventual emergence of a multi-party system in Turkmenistan, the one (artificial) experiment in this direction, the announcement in 1993 of a Peasants' Justice Party to serve as a champion for agrarian interests, was not developed. There is some exiled opposition to Niyazov's government, whose leaders include former ministers and officials dismissed by the Turkmen president.

On November 25 2002, a group of exiled oppositionists led by former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov organised, according to the Turkmen government version of events, an assassination attempt against Niyazov, in which they had enlisted the help of foreign mercenaries. The alleged plotters of the coup attempt, including Shikhmuradov, were rounded up, tried and convicted in a summary way as 'betrayers of the motherland', the nature of the detentions and trials raising considerable international concern over the apparent abuses of human rights involved.

The concentration of power by President Niyazov had been made on the basis of what he perceives as a social contract with the people of Turkmenistan, as part of which certain basic goods are provided at free or heavily subsidised rates, including free gas, and petrol at 300 manat a litre. In a book of poetry, Spring of My Inspiration, completed in 2004, Niyazov set out his conception of a democratic state in the poem 'My Democracy'. Free water, gas and electricity are a core part of his vision, as are televised Cabinet meetings, national unity and the hard and honest work of the president.

On December 21, 2006, Turkmen state television announced that President Niyazov had died of a sudden heart attack. Niyazov had been taking medication for an unidentified cardiac condition. The Turkmen Embassy in Moscow later confirmed this report.

According to the Constitution of Turkmenistan, Ozwezgeldi Atayew, Chairman of the Assembly, would assume the presidency. Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow was named as head of the commission organizing the state funeral. Due to the imprisonment of Ozwezgeldi Atayew who, under the Constitution is first in line to succeed the presidency, Berdimuhamedow was named as acting president. Berdimuhamedow and the Halk Maslahaty announced on December 26, 2006 that the next presidential elections would be held on February 11, 2007.

The circumstances of Niyazov's death have been surrounded by some media speculation. Some Turkmen opposition sources also claim that Niyazov died several days before the officially announced date of December 21.

Saparmurat Niyazov's rule