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Death of Turkmenistan's leader creates power vacuum

Asia's longest-ruling leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, left no successor – and no script for a transfer of political power in the energy-rich nation.

He styled himself "Turkmenbashi," which means "chief of the Turkmen," and was effectively declared president-for-life of Turkmenistan in 1999.

But central Asia's longest-ruling leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, died suddenly Thursday, leaving a vacuum at the heart of the energy-rich but politically unstable region.

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Bordering both Iran and Afghanistan, Turkmenistan boasts the second-largest gas reserves of former Soviet countries, after Russia. While Russia is currently its primary gas customer, some analysts say that Mr. Niyazov's passing may present an opening for Western energy companies.

During Niyazov's 21-year rule, he created a near-hermit state in which dissent was ruthlessly crushed and contacts with foreigners forbidden. Now, Turkmenistan could be thrown into tumultuous uncertainty.

"The country lives behind an iron curtain, and nobody knows what to expect now that Niyazov has suddenly left the scene," says Andrei Grozin, an expert with the official Institute of Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "We might see a military coup, or an extended period of clashes among the elite," he adds.

Solemn news broadcasts throughout the day on Turkmen state TV announced that "Turkmenbashi the Great" had died of cardiac arrest, but offered few indications of what may lie ahead for the isolated desert nation of 5 million people. "The internal and external policies proclaimed earlier will be continued further," the broadcasts said. "The nation must remain united and unshaken."

Niyazov left no designated heir, but the country's constitution stipulates that the chairman of the Mejlis (parliament) should take over temporarily if the president is incapacitated.

But in a signal that a power struggle may already be under way, Russian news agencies report that the current Mejlis chairman, Ovezgeldy Katayev, is facing unspecified "criminal proceedings," and his place will be taken by Deputy Prime Minister Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

Mr. Berdymukhamedov is widely rumored to be Niyazov's illegitimate son, though even usually well-informed Russian experts say they know little about him.

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"Basically, there is no predictable script for a power transfer in Turkmenistan," says Arkady Dubnov, an expert with the daily Vremya Novostei in Moscow. "All the potential contenders for power are either dead, in prison, or in exile."

Niyazov maintained cordial relations with Moscow, and allowed the US to use Turkmen airspace during its 2001 intervention in neighboring Afghanistan, but he otherwise followed a policy of strict neutrality and refused to join regional security alliances.

Russia's state-run gas monopoly, Gazprom, has been the main customer for Turkmen gas, which it purchases at prices far below world market rates. Russia and Turkmenistan recently extended their deal for three years, but any sharp post-Niyazov change in Turkmenistan's political orientation might open up fresh possibilities for Western oil majors.

"Until now, Russia has locked up Turkmen gas resources, but with Niyazov's death, the situation has changed and we may now see a big struggle for access to them," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in World Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. "This game will be very important for Russia and it may not turn out to be a very pleasant one."

Sergei Prikhodko, a top Kremlin aide, said Thursday that "we count on the new Turkmenistan leaders continuing their course and further developing bilateral ties," according to the official ITAR-Tass agency.

Niyazov's iron-fisted rule over his own people was often described as "pharaonic," due to his absolutism and love of building huge monuments in his own honor. He was derided by critics – all of them abroad – for naming months of the year after himself and his mother, and placing a giant gold-plated statue of himself atop the highest building in the capital Ashgabad.

In 2002, following an alleged plot against his life, Niyazov launched a major purge against opponents, banned Russian TV broadcasts, and drove many ethnic Russians out of the country.

"For younger Turkmen, who have known nothing but Niyazov's rule and its rigorous propaganda, his end will come as a major tragedy like the death of [Joseph] Stalin was for a generation of Soviet people," says Mr. Grozin. "Older people, who remember a relatively more free time, will probably watch and wait to see what happens next."

Niyazov, an orphaned son of a WW II veteran, rose to become Communist Party chief of Turkmenistan in 1985. Following the collapse of the USSR he consolidated one-man rule over the largely rural republic, winning 1992 elections with 99.5 percent of the vote. In 1994, he garnered 99.9 percent in a referendum on extending his rule. In 1999 the Mejlis removed all term limits, effectively naming him president-for-life.

In recent years, Niyazov had become increasingly erratic, passing laws banning men from wearing beards or listening to car radios, and prohibiting teenagers from playing video games. He named a key town, an airport, and even a meteorite after himself, and scattered statues of his mother around the country. A year ago he ordered all doctors to swear a personal oath to himself instead of the Hippocratic oath.