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Stalin in Vegas

Turkmenbashi is Dead!
Long live Turkmenistan!

In the far off lands of the Silk Road, authoritarian president Saparmurat Niyazov is dead at 66. He ruled Turkmenistan for 21 years in a fashion that was as bizarre as it was brutal. Niyazov proclaimed himself Turkmenbashi, Father of the Turkmens. He then strong-armed the parliament to pass laws banning men from wearing beards or listening to car radios. He prohibited teenagers from playing video games.

The most curious of the Central Asian republics, Turkmenistan resembles an Arab Gulf state without the money. It's the second largest Central Asian country, but four-fifths of it consist of an inhospitable lunar-like desert called the Karakum which conceals unexploited oil and gas deposits.

With no designated successor there are fears that the autocratic state could descend into chaos, which could threaten to disrupt vital gas exports to Europe via Russia. He had done nothing to groom a successor. Those countries with vital interests in Turkmenistan, like the US and Russia, will be waiting to see how things play out over the coming days and weeks.

Niyazov eagerly took advantage of the U.S.-Russia rivalry. He agreed to harbor a U.S. military base after it was driven out of Uzbekistan, a favor that ensured that the U.S. administration would show tolerance for blatant abuses of human rights in Turkmenistan, regardless of President Bush's proclaimed mission of bringing freedom and democracy to the world.

In recent years, Niyazov had become increasingly erratic. The President for Life scattered statues of his mother around the country, placing a giant gold-plated statue of himself atop the highest building in the capital Ashgabad.

He then named the months of the year after himself and his mother. He also named a regional town, an airport, and even a meteorite after himself. A year ago he ordered all doctors to swear a personal oath to himself instead of the Hippocratic oath.

Niyazov authored a book titled Ruhnama, or Spirituality, and ordered that all Turkmen schoolchildren, college students and government officials and civil servants study it thoroughly. As befits a divine leader, he claimed to command nature itself. One report has it that he demanded that a crop be harvested early because he'd become tired holding back the rain.

Niyazov and the small ruling elite that surrounded him held most of their vast wealth in offshore bank accounts and the majority of Turkmen live in abject poverty. In fact, 90 percent of income from gas exports sat in a fund that only the president could access.

While he was busy building outlandish projects, such as a huge man-made lake in the Kara Kum desert, an ice palace and a 40-meter (130-foot) pyramid, his people were suffering unemployment that ran at 50 percent in the cities and up to 70 percent in rural areas.

Niyazov's iron-fisted rule over his own people was often described as pharaonic, if not downright Stalinesque. His absolutism and love of building huge monuments in his own honor was derided by critics; all of them now abroad. Among his more recent victims were two journalists who worked for foreign news outlets and one human rights activist. Ogulsapar Muradova, 58, who worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, died in prison. Her body showed obvious signs of torture.

One would hope that change will at least improve somewhat the situation of the Turkmen people. But with the balance of power in Central Asia at stake, it's unlikely that human rights abuses will be of major concern to the contestants in this tug-of-war. I expect there will be a massive fight for power now in Turkmenistan, a Russian gas industry source told Reuters.

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