Born as Saparmurad Niyazov on the 19th February 1940, the man who later became known as Turkmenbashi has left a lasting impression throughout the world for his leadership, not always a positive impression.
Niyazov was born during World War II in which his father died fighting for the Allies against Nazi Germany. In 1948, the rest of his family were killed in Ashgabet (Turkmenistan) during a massive earthquake which destroyed the entire city. After his family’s deaths, Niyazov was sent to a Soviet state orphanage to live before the government sent him to live with a distant relative.
It was in 1962 that Niyazov first joined the Communist Party where he quickly rose in rank and in power. In 1985, he gained the post of First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Turkmen SSR, after the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev replaced his predecessor, Muhammetnazar Gapurow.
On 13th January 1930, Niyazov was given the post of Chairman of the Supreme Soviet which was the equivalent of president. Niyazov backed the Soviet coup known as the ‘August coup’ but the attempt failed. Turkmenistan was proclaimed independent by the Supreme Soviet and Niyazov was elected the country’s first president on 21st June 1992. It wouldn’t be until the following year that Niyazov renamed himself ‘Turkmenbashi’, which means ‘Leader of all Turkmen’.
The leadership of Turkmenbashi has been met with disapproval and incredulity over the years. He banned men from wearing long hair and beards; lip syncing was also banned from musical concerts; hospitals outside of Ashgabet were closed and people looking for medical treatment were forced to journey to the city. In addition to this, he ordered a ice of ice to be built despite the fact that Turkmenistan is a desert country (although it should be stated that this ice palace was never constructed).
Under his leadership, Turkmenistan embraced commercial relations with other countries but did so without market reform. He “has had the opportunity to devise domestic and foreign policies with little influence from major domestic political constituencies. Turkmenistan’s vast natural gas resources-the country possesses over 100 trillion cubic feet of proven reserves-give Turkmenbashi the luxury of independent decision making. Turkmenbashi exercises a monopoly on political power. Domestic political constituencies have been largely isolated and excluded from the political process. Passage of a law exempting Turkmenbashi from term limits allows him legally to remain in office until his death”.
He allowed America over flight rights and the transport of humanitarian cargo to Afghanistan, this causing diplomatic strain with Russia. On 25th November 2002, a coup was attempted which gave Turkmenbashi the excuse to “destroy the opposition and move against the Russian minority, estimated at 7% of a population of five million. On April 3, 2003, Niyazov revoked the dual nationality treaty with Russia that had been signed in December 1993 to allow local Russians to hold Russian citizenship. On April 10, 2003, Putin came to an agreement with Niyazov that dual citizen-ship would continue for existing holders but would not apply for new applicants. On April 22, Niyazov declared that the termination of dual citizenship would apply to all local Russians and gave them two months to choose.56 Moscow claimed that 100,000 Russians were affected, while Ashkhabad said there were only 47 dual citizenship holders. Russia’s Duma held hearings on the issue on June 19 and Putin was attacked for failing to protect the Russians. Reports circulated of harassment and human rights violations”.
Turkmenbashi died on the 21st December 2006, when the Turkmen state television declared that he died from cardiac arrest. He was buried on the 24th December in Gypjak, his home town, where he was placed in his tomb which was constructed for him and his family whilst in his presidency.
Turkmenbashi is not a widely known figure outside of politics and when he is recognised, especially in the west, he is seen as something of a dictator and a bully. Despite this, he had a creative side of him where he recited and published poetry and short stories.
Buszynski, Leszek (2005) Russia’s New Role in Central Asia, Asian Survey, University of California Press.
Gleason, Gregory (2001) Inter-State Cooperation in Central Asia from the CIS to the Shanghai Forum, Europe-Asia Studies, Taylor & Francis Ltd.