The Death of an "Alice in Wonderland" Dictator

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Turkmenistan is officially a nation of orphans. Government officials announced Thursday morning that President-For-Life Saparmurat Niyazov, self-proclaimed "Turkmenbashi" — the Father of all the Turkmen — had died overnight of cardiac arrest. The much-feared ruler's death came as a shock to his five million subjects, who for 21 years had been living in near-total international isolation under his Alice-in-Wonderland dictatorship. Niyazov fought AIDS and cholera by simply outlawing any mention of them or other infectious diseases. He banned from employment, public or private, anyone who had received a degree or a diploma from a foreign educational institution over the previous decade, and had most of the domestic school curriculum replaced by studies of his book Rukhnama (Spirituality), the reading of which, he assured, was a ticket straight to Allah's paradise. But there was nothing orthodox about the tightly controlled forms of Islam he allowed: he banned beards and mustaches, as well as long hair. And lest his subjects forget their "father," he renamed days of the week and months of the calendar after himself and members of his family. He even ordered bread renamed by a word derived from his mother's name.

Niyazov has gone, but his 46-foot-tall gold-plated statue (one of several hundreds of thousands of his likenesses dotted around the country) which completes a slow rotation every 24 hours atop the 230-foot tower in downtown Ashgabat will watch the resulting struggle over the world's fifth-biggest reserve of natural gas, which Niyazov had controlled as if it were his private property.

"This fight is only beginning to unfold," says Alexei Malashenko, Moscow Carnegie Central Asia expert. The only viable political institution left by Niyazov is the all-powerful Secret Police, which keeps files on each claimant to the throne — including Niyazov's son Murat, 39, a Vienna-based businessman.

Clans involved with gas, cotton, and other businesses hitherto personally controlled by the Turkmenbashi have power aspirations, too. But the opposition barely exists; those still in the country are in prison, while those based abroad are badly split and insignificant, though they immediately announced their intentions to gather and discuss how they could unite and stake a claim to power.

"The people are totally out of this," Malashenko says. "It's all among the clans." There won't be another Turkmenbashi, he predicts, because such a prospect scares everyone. But there will likely be a period of de-Turkmenbashization, unveiling the personality cult of the late leader, and very possibly a power struggle. Malashenko believes this could lead ito the emergence of Islamic radicalism, as a natural reaction to the years of harsh suppression of Islam and Niyazov's tight control over religious expression.

As fiercely as the contenders may struggle for power, even more difficult will be getting their hands on the considerable wealth amassed by Turkmenistan through the sale of its resources — Niyazov kept all revenues earned by exports, estimated at more than $7 billion, deposited abroad in his private accounts, "lest corrupt officials embezzle the nation's capital," he explained. The question will be who gets the control of those accounts — Murat, as his father's natural heir, or his rivals.

Meanwhile, foreign powers will rush to establish influence in a post-Niyazov Turkmenistan. Its gas and hydrocarbon reserves, its location alongside Iran and Afghanistan and the potential for Islamic radicalism make it a strategic priority for both Washington and Moscow. The one certainty is that gas will continue to flow. Some worry that blood will flow too.