|Intro||Turkmen politician in the USSR, first president of independent Turkmenistan|
|Known for||Ruhnama, National anthem of Turkmenistan|
|A.K.A.||Saparmyrat Ataýewiç Nyýazow|
|Birth||19 February 1940, Gypjak, Turkmenistan|
|Death||21 December 2006, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (aged 66 years)|
|Politics||Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Democratic Party of Turkmenistan|
Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov (Turkmen: Saparmyrat Ataýewiç Nyýazow, Cyrillic: Сапармырат Атаевич Ныязов; 19 February 1940 – 21 December 2006; also known as Türkmenbaşy (Head of the Turkmen) or Beýik Türkmenbaşy (Great Head of the Turkmen) was a Turkmen politician who served as the leader of Turkmenistan from 1985 until his death in 2006. He was First Secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party from 1985 until 1991 and supported the 1991 Soviet coup d'état attempt. He continued to rule Turkmenistan for 15 years after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Turkmen media referred to him using the title "His Excellency Saparmurat Türkmenbaşy, President of Turkmenistan and Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers". His self-given title Türkmenbaşy, meaning Head of the Turkmen, referred to his position as the founder and president of the Association of Turkmens of the World. In 1999, the Assembly of Turkmenistan declared Niyazov President for Life of Turkmenistan.
In his time, he was one of the world's most totalitarian, despotic and repressive dictators. He promoted a cult of personality around himself and imposed his personal eccentricities upon the country, such as renaming Turkmen months and days of the week to references of his autobiography the Ruhnama. He made it mandatory to read the Ruhnama in schools, universities and governmental organizations, new governmental employees were tested on the book at job interviews and an exam on its teachings was a part of the driving test in Turkmenistan. In 2005, he closed down all rural libraries and hospitals outside of the capital city Ashgabat, in a country where at that time more than half the population lived in rural areas, once stating that, "If people are ill, they can come to Ashgabat." Under his rule, Turkmenistan had the lowest life expectancy in Central Asia. Global Witness, a London-based human rights organisation, reported that money under Niyazov's control and held overseas may be in excess of US$3 billion, of which between $1.8–$2.6 billion was allegedly situated in the Foreign Exchange Reserve Fund at Deutsche Bank in Germany.
Niyazov was born on 19 February 1940 in Gypjak (or Kipchak), just outside Ashgabat in the Turkmen SSR. He was a member of the influential Tekke tribe. According to the official version of his biography, his father Atamyrat Niyazov died in World War II fighting against Nazi Germany, while other sources contend that he dodged fighting and was therefore sentenced by a military court. The other members of his family were killed in the 1948 Ashgabat earthquake that caused extreme damage and a high number of casualties in the city. His mother Gurbansoltan Eje was part of the cult of personality later. He grew up in a Soviet orphanage before the state put him in the custody of a distant relative.
After finishing school in 1959, he worked as an instructor in the Turkmen trade-union exploratory committee. He then studied at the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute, where in 1967 he received a diploma as an electrical engineer. After graduating, he went to study in Russia, but was expelled a few years later for academic failure.
In 1962 Niyazov started his political career, becoming a member of the Communist Party. He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming First Secretary of the Ashgabat City Committee, and First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Turkmen SSR in 1985. He gained this post after Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had removed his predecessor, Muhammetnazar Gapurov, following a cotton-related scandal. Under Niyazov, the Turkmen Communist Party had a reputation as one of the most hardline and unreformed party organizations in the Soviet Union. On January 13, 1990, Niyazov became Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Turkmen SSR, the supreme legislative body in the republic. The post was equivalent to that of president.
Niyazov supported the Soviet coup attempt of 1991. However, after the coup collapsed, he set about separating Turkmenistan from the dying Soviet Union. The Turkmen Supreme Soviet declared Turkmenistan independent and appointed Niyazov as the country's first president on 27 October 1991. On 21 June 1992 the Turkmenistani presidential election of 1992 featured Niyazov as the sole candidate, and chosen as the country's first popularly elected president. A year later he declared himself Türkmenbaşy: "Leader of all Turkmen".
In 1994 a plebiscite extended Niyazov's term to 2002 so he could oversee a 10-year development plan. The official results showed that 99.9% of voters approved this proposal. On 28 December 1999, Parliament declared Niyazov President for Life; parliamentary elections had been held a few weeks earlier for which the president had hand-picked all candidates.
Niyazov and his Russian-Jewish wife, Muza, had a son (Murat) and a daughter (Irina).
Niyazov became president at the transition of Turkmenistan from a Soviet republic to an independent state. His presidency was characterised by an initial crumbling of the centralised Soviet model that in many respects was unsuited to function as a separate entity; also, there were large amounts of foreign income from gas and petroleum reserves (approximately $2–4 billion as of 2005). There was outside concern about press freedom and to a lesser extent religious rights of minority religious groups. Niyazov made a personal attempt to create a cultural background for the new state of Turkmenistan by writing and promoting the Ruhnama, an autobiography meant to guide the people of Turkmenistan with his ideas and promote native culture (and by extension prohibiting foreign culture). He also took part in creating new holidays with a specific Turkmen nature and introduced a new Latin-based Turkmen alphabet to replace Russian Cyrillic. The Latin Turkmen alphabet consists of: Aa, Bb, Çç, Dd, Ee, Ää, Ff, Gg, Hh, Ii, Jj, Žž, Kk, Ll, Mm, Nn, Ňň, Oo, Öö, Pp, Rr, Ss, Şş, Tt, Uu, Üü, Ww, Yy, Ýý, Zz.
Niyazov became a substitute for the vacuum left by the downfall of the communist system, with his image replacing those of Marx and Lenin. He renamed the town of Krasnovodsk "Turkmenbashi" after himself, and renamed schools, airports and even a meteorite after himself and members of his family. His many, sometimes erratic decrees, and the doting actions of the official Turkmen media gave rise to the clear appearance of a cult of personality. In Ashgabat, he erected a rotating, $12 million, golden statue of himself that always faces the sun. The eccentric nature of some of his decrees, and the vast number of images of the president led to the perception, especially in western countries, of a despotic leader, rich on oil wealth glorifying himself whilst the population gained no benefit.
Despite emphasizing a need to move from central planning to a market economy and to a full democracy during his reign, neither plan progressed. Yearly plans set forth by the government and a centralised economy gave little indication of moving away from state-dominated economics, and the dictatorial nature of many of his decrees and his declaring himself "President for Life" gave little hope as to much progress in these two areas.
Oil and gas
Turkmenistan has the second-largest oil reserves in the former Soviet Union, generating high revenue for the state. The government has used central planning, such as state control of production and procurement, direct bank credits with low interest rates, exchange rate restrictions, and price controls, since it existed as a Republic within the U.S.S.R.
In the years following independence, Turkmenistan invested heavily in plants and machinery in an attempt to convert it from being primarily a supplier of petroleum to a more advanced economy; such investments included oil refineries and a polyethylene plant. In an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper, Niyazov claimed that Turkmenistan was able to process 85% of its domestic output. Additionally, numerous petroleum transportation projects were completed such as a pipeline from the Korpedje field to Kort-Koi in Iran.
In 1991 and 2001, Niyazov issued decrees making water, gas, electricity, and refined salt free to use for ten year periods.
In 2005, Niyazov appointed Gurbanmyrat Ataýew as Minister of Oil and Gas, succeeding Atamurad Berdyev.
Turkmenistan's other primary resources are cotton and grain. Niyazov continued the old practice of demanding yearly quotas in agricultural output, and then blaming and/or sacking deputy ministers when quotas were not met. Nevertheless, Turkmenistan had an emergent period during which there was heavy investment in plant and machinery so the country could change from a producer of raw cotton to a cotton processor. During Niyazov's presidency, a textile industry was founded in Turkmenistan.
Niyazov introduced the practice of "Melon Day," a harvest festival celebrated on the 2nd Sunday of August; unlike some of his other creations, the celebration of "Melon Day" has continued after his death.
Niyazov put the revival of Turkmen culture as one of the top priorities in Turkmenistan's development. He introduced a new Turkmen alphabet based on the Latin alphabet to replace Cyrillic. The National Revival Movement, an organisation to promote Turkmen culture (Turkmen: "Galkynish"), was also founded.
In many respects, Niyazov's cultural ideas and changes were most visible to external viewers. His renaming of months, as well as days of the week, to Turkmen heroes, poets, historical events, family members and himself raised many eyebrows all over the world. For example, September was renamed Ruhnama in honour of the book written by Niyazov (which he finished writing on 19 September 2001). Not all the changes promoted Niyazov; October was renamed Garaşsyzlyk (Independence) to mark the state's founding on 27 October 1991, and November Sanjar in honour of Sultan Sanjar who led the Seljuqs to their last full flowering. The new names came into effect with the introduction of a new labour law which stated that "the dates of professional holidays are specified by decrees of the President of Turkmenistan".
These names were later abolished by his successor Berdymukhamedov in April 2008.
One of the earliest acts of the president was to abolish the death penalty. He also granted official human rights to the people, though they were not respected in practice with his government being criticised as one of the worst human rights violators in the world. Press freedom under Niyazov's leadership was much criticised as it was with other former Soviet central Asian states. Turkmenistan's media constantly doted on the president and helped build his cult of personality. In May 2000, the government revoked all Internet licenses except for the state-owned Turkmen Telecom and in June 2001 shut down all Internet cafés. By 2005, there were 36,000 Internet users in Turkmenistan, representing 0.7% of the population.
In March 2004, 15,000 public health workers were dismissed including nurses, midwives, school health visitors and orderlies. In February 2005 all hospitals outside Aşgabat were ordered closed, with the reasoning that the sick should come to the capital for treatment. According to the paper Neitralniy Turkmenistan physicians were ordered to swear an oath to the President, replacing the Hippocratic Oath. All libraries outside of the capital were also closed, as Niyazov believed that the only books that most Turkmen needed to read were the Qur'an and his Ruhnama.
In January 2006, one-third of the country's elderly had their pensions discontinued, while another 200,000 had theirs reduced. Pensions received during the prior two years were ordered paid back to the state. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan strongly denied allegations that the cut in pensions resulted in the deaths of many elderly Turkmens, accusing foreign media outlets of spreading "deliberately perverted" information on the issue. On March 19, 2007 Turkmenistan's new president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow reversed Niyazov's decision by restoring pensions to more than 100,000 elderly citizens.
In December 2008, the new president also made changes to the national anthem, the chorus of which referenced Niyazov.
In keeping with the predominantly Islamic nature of Turkmen society, President Niyazov granted pardons each year on the Laylat al-Qadr (Night of Destiny) in the month of Ramadan.
For example, in 2005, 8,145 convicts were pardoned including 229 foreign nationals. In 2006 Turkmenistan set free 10,056 prisoners, including 253 foreign nationals from 11 countries. Niyazov said:
"Let this humane act on the part of the state serve strengthening truly moral values of the Turkmen society. Let the entire world know that there has never been a place for evil and violence on the blessed Turkmen soil."
Decrees and laws
- Niyazov banned the use of lip syncing at public concerts in 2005 as well as sound recordings at "musical performances on state holidays, in broadcasts by Turkmen television channels, at all cultural events organized by the state... in places of mass assembly and at weddings and celebrations organised by the public," citing a negative effect on the development of musical arts incurred by the use of recorded music.
- Niyazov banished dogs from the capital Ashgabat because of their "unappealing odour."
- According to the Ashgabat correspondent of Turkmenistan.ru, right-hand-drive imported cars converted to left-hand-drive were banned due to a perceived increased risk in accidents.
- Niyazov requested that a "palace of ice", or indoor ice skating rink, be built near the capital, so that those living in the desert country could learn to skate. The rink was built in 2008 and is located near the new Turkmen State Medical University.
- After having to quit smoking in 1997 due to his resultant heart surgery, he banned smoking in all public places and ordered all government employees to follow suit. Chewing tobacco on Turkmen soil was later banned as well.
- He outlawed opera, ballet and circuses in 2001 for being "decidedly unturkmen-like".
- In February 2004, he decreed that men should no longer wear long hair or beards.
- He banned news reporters and presenters from wearing make-up on television. According to some reports he felt presenters should "appear natural" on-screen, although others alleged the reason was more eccentric, claiming he said he found it difficult to distinguish male anchors from female anchors.
- Gold teeth were discouraged in Turkmenistan after Niyazov suggested that the populace chew on bones to strengthen their teeth and lessen the rate at which they fall out. He said:
I watched young dogs when I was young. They were given bones to gnaw to strengthen their teeth. Those of you whose teeth have fallen out did not chew on bones. This is my advice...
- He abolished the Turkmen word for bread, for it to be replaced with Gurbansoltan, his mother's name. Likewise he gave the month of April his mother's name.
Niyazov promoted a policy of strict neutrality in foreign affairs, refraining from seeking membership in NATO or GUAM and almost ignoring the CSTO. Turkmenistan has not participated in any United Nations peacekeeping missions. It has however become a member of Interpol.
The full independence of Turkmenistan was recognised by a UN General Assembly resolution "The permanent neutrality of Turkmenistan" of December 12, 1995. As a result, in 2005 Turkmenistan would downgrade its links with the Commonwealth of Independent States becoming only an associate member under article 8 of the CIS charter, as such it would not participate in any of the military structures of the CIS.
In 2006 the European Commission and the international trade committee of the European Parliament voted to grant Turkmenistan "most favoured nation" trading status with the European Union, widely seen as motivated by interest in natural gas, after Niyazov announced he would enter a "human rights dialogue" with the EU.
In January 1996, Niyazov met with Sayid Abdulloh Nuri in Tehran to inform him that the attendees of a CIS summit in Moscow had agreed to renew the mandate of CIS peacekeepers in Tajikistan, which was going through a civil war at the time.
On November 25, 2002, Niyazov's motorcade was fired upon at about 7 a.m. in downtown Ashgabat as he was traveling to his office from his official residence in Arshabil. Niyazov claimed that it was an attempt at a coup, and as a result, the Turkmen government arrested thousands of suspected conspirators and members of their families. Critics claim the government staged the attempt in order to crack down on mounting domestic and foreign political opposition.
The summer of 2004 saw a leaflet campaign in the capital, Aşgabat, calling for the overthrow and trial of Niyazov. The authorities were unable to stop the campaign and the President responded by firing his Interior Minister and director of the police academy on national television. He accused the minister of incompetence and declared: "I cannot say that you had any great merits or did much to combat crime."
Niyazov later announced that surveillance cameras were to be placed at all major streets and sites in Turkmenistan, an apparent precaution against future attempts.
On the afternoon of December 21, 2006, Turkmen state television announced that President Saparmurat Niyazov had died of a sudden heart attack in the early morning hours at around 01:10 at his residence at age 66. One month prior to his death, Niyazov had publicly announced that he was taking heart medication for the past few years for an unidentified cardiac condition. The Turkmen Embassy in Moscow later confirmed this report.
Because Niyazov named no successor prior to his death, according to the law of the Constitution of Turkmenistan, Öwezgeldi Ataýew, the Chairman of the Assembly, would assume the presidency. Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow was named as head of the commission organizing the state funeral. However, Ataýew was arrested on December 21, 2006 and Berdimuhamedow was subsequently named acting president. Berdimuhamedow and the Halk Maslahaty announced on December 26, 2006 that the next presidential elections would be held on February 11, 2007 to elect Niyazov's successor.
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.
Foreign news reports also claimed that Niyazov also suffered from ischemic heart disease and kidney failure due to being overweight and overindulgence of alcohol.
Funeral and burial
Niyazov was buried in his ready prepared tomb in Kipchak Mosque on December 24 at his home village of Gypjak, approximately 7 kilometres west of Ashgabat. Prior to being moved to the village, Niyazov's body lay in state in an open coffin in the presidential palace from 9:00 am to 12:00 pm. Many mourners, including foreign delegations, passed by the coffin in a three-hour period. Many of the ordinary citizens wept dramatically as they walked, some even clinging to the coffin and fainting. A prayer took place before the burial.
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