Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 35

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niazov turns 62 today–“the age of the Prophet Muhammad,” as Niazov’s propaganda apparatus has emphasized in the runup to the anniversary. Niazov’s official titles, bestowed on him by nation-wide consultative forums and attached by now to his name, include Turkmenbashi [Father of Turkmens], the Great, and Serdar [supreme chieftain]. His personality cult has in recent years been extended to his deceased parents, now also the objects of systematic official adulation.

Niazov’s personality cult is by far the most egregious in Central Asia, and owes as much to the Soviet tradition as to that of Oriental despotism. It also bows to Islam in two ways: by incorporating some elements of Islam into the official ideology and by subverting and secularizing other elements of Islam, in effect confiscating them for the same ideology. The latter also borrows from Kemalism, the ideology of modern Turkey’s state founder Kemal Ataturk and his successors, which emphasizes on the common Turkic heritage of pre-Islamic times, secular nation-state building and centralized rule to suppress tribalism or regionalism. Niazov frequently warns his countrymen against the destructive potential of tribalism.

Niazov has ruled Turkmenistan continuously since his appointment in 1985 as first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan. Although chafing to end Moscow’s control over his republic, Niazov did not pursue national independence before 1991, his main reasons being that the Turkmen people did not give rise to a national movement, nor the party apparatus to a reform movement. It was not until October 1991 that a referendum on national independence was held. Popularly elected president that year, Niazov had himself proclaimed president for life in 1999 at a joint session of the Elders’ Congress, the People’s Council and the National Revival Movement. Of these forums, the second is a substitute parliament by appointment, and the third a symbolic substitute for a ruling party.

Niazov is Central Asia’s sole president for life. The 1999 decision had the effect of cancelling the presidential election due to have been held in June 2002 (see below). He has, however, more than once hinted that he intends to step down by 2008 or 2010, if he can identify a worthy successor by then. Niazov’s physical longevity is in any case open to question. He had cardiac bypass surgery in Germany several years ago, has been doing well since, but requires periodic checkups by the German doctors.

Additionally, since an opposition group took shape in Moscow recently, his political longevity, unquestioned until recently, is no longer taken for granted. This opposition’s chosen location, implying possible Russian official backing, lends it far greater weight than it would otherwise possess. Former Turkmen officials who turned against Niazov reside also in Scandinavian countries, for example, but very few regard them as a potential serious threat. Residence in Moscow is quite another matter, however.

In recent months and weeks, Niazov has seen an unprecedented series of high-profile defections, mostly to Russia. In November, the longest-serving Turkmen government official, Boris Shikhmuradov, flew to Moscow directly from his latest post–that of ambassador to China, to which he had been only recently demoted. Last month the Turkmen ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Pirmuhammed Gurbanov, went into opposition. Last week the ambassador to Turkey, Nurmuhammed Khanamov, defected to Moscow. Shikhmuradov had in fact been dismissed and Khanamov indicted shortly before their respective flights to Russia. Turkmenistan is now seeking their extradition on criminal charges, stemming from allegedly unauthorized sales of Soviet surplus arms and ammunition in the early 1990s. The Russian authorities are unlikely to oblige the request.

Shikhmuradov lost no time setting up, in Moscow, a Provisonal Executive Committee of the People’s Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan. His credentials, however, are being challenged by another Moscow emigre, former Turkmen Foreign Affairs Minister Avdy Kuliev, who broke with Niazov in 1992. Kuliev points out that Shikhmuradov served Niazov faithfully as foreign affairs minister and deputy prime minister for ten years, until Niazov fired him. Shikhmuradov has responded with some public self-criticism. A further questionable element in his biography is his Soviet-era service as TASS correspondent in India and Pakistan–a type of posting that often, though not always, served as a cover for KGB agents. A further handicap to Shikhmuradov, in terms of leadership succession, is his half-Armenian background and lack of Muslim roots in an overwhelmingly Muslim society.

Biography aside, Shikhmuradov in his Moscow haven advocates continued reliance on the Russian export route for Turkmen natural gas. Niazov himself has done the greatest disservice to his country by temporizing indefinitely on the project to lay a westbound Trans-Caspian pipeline to Turkey. The erratic Niazov, however, is highly dissatisfied with the existing dependence on the Russian route, and favors an alternative route via Afghanistan to Pakistan and India. That plan, formerly backed by the United States, is now again finding favor in Washington, in the context of post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan.

In Moscow, on the other hand, the formation of Shikhmuradov’s opposition group coincides with President Vladimir Putin’s plan to draw Turkmenistan into a Russian-led alliance of gas exporting countries, an “OPEC for gas.” Niazov has, thus far, turned a deaf ear to the proposal. If past experience is any guide, Moscow is unlikely to use Niazov’s opponents to unseat him. It is far more likely to work with the incumbent president and use the opposition group based in Moscow as a pressure lever on him (Turkmen State News Service, Neytralny Turkmenistan, Turkmen Television, Interfax, February 4-5, 14-17; see the Monitor, November 5, 2001, January 15, 24).