Turkmen president dies of heart attack
Updated: 2006-12-21 14:25
ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan -- President Saparmurat Niyazov -- who
created a vast cult of personality during two decades of iron-fisted rule over
arid, energy-rich Turkmenistan -- has died, officials said Thursday. He was 66.
A terse report from state
television said Niyazov died early Thursday of heart failure and showed a
black-framed portrait of the man who had ordered citizens to refer to him as
"Turkmenbashi" -- the Father of All Turkmen.
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov
attends a government meeting in Ashgabat in this December 27, 2002, file
"It happened overnight. The
president has died," a government source said on Thursday.
underwent major heart surgery in Germany in 1997 and last month publicly
acknowledged for the first time that he had heart disease. But he did not seem
seriously ill; two weeks ago he appeared in public to formally open an amusement
park named after him outside the capital.
Niyazov had led Turkmenistan
since 1985, when it was still a Soviet republic. After the 1991 Soviet collapse,
he retained control and began creating an elaborate personality cult.
ordered the months and days of the week named after himself and his family, and
statues of him were erected throughout the nation. He is listed as author of the
"Rukhnama" (Book of the Soul) that was required reading in schools. Children
pledged allegiance to him every morning.
It was unclear who may be in
line to replace Niyazov or how the succession process would be conducted. The
funeral is to be held on Sunday.
"His death means a terrible shock for the republic, its
residents and the political class. It's comparable to a shock the Soviet Union
felt after Stalin's death," Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Moscow-based
Politika think tank, was quoted as saying by the RIA-Novosti news agency.
Turkmenistan -- a majority Muslim
country dominated by the vast Kara Kum desert -- has the world's fifth-largest
natural gas reserves, but Niyazov failed to convert that wealth into prosperity
for his country's 5 million people.
Earlier this year, the leader
announced he would provide citizens with natural gas and power free of charge
through 2030. But he has also tapped the country's vast energy wealth for
outlandish projects -- a huge, man-made lake in the Kara Kum desert, a vast
cypress forest to change the desert climate, an ice palace outside the capital,
a ski resort and a 130-foot pyramid.
Niyazov was born February 19, 1940.
His father died in World War II and the rest of his family was killed in an
earthquake that leveled Ashgabat in 1948. He was raised in an orphanage and
later in the home of distant relatives.
Niyazov attended Leningrad
Polytechnic Institute in Russia to study power engineering and worked at the
Bezmeinskaya Power Station near Ashgabat after his graduation in 1966.
Named head of the Communist Party in Turkmenistan in 1985, Niyazov was
named president of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic in October 1990 and led
his nation through its October 27, 1991 independence. He was elected president
of the new independent Turkmenistan in 1992 with a reported 99.5 percent of the
vote. In 1994, an alleged 99.9 percent of voters supported a referendum allowing
him to remain in office for a second five-year term without having to face new
In 1999, he was effectively made president for life after
parliament removed all term limits, but an August 2002 gathering of the
country's People's Council -- a hand-picked assembly of Niyazov loyalists --
nonetheless went further and endorsed him as president for life.
Niyazov's rule, Turkmenistan adopted a strict policy of neutrality and spurned
joining regional security or economic organizations that sprung up in the wake
of the Soviet collapse.
But Niyazov supported the US-led anti-terror
campaign in neighboring Afghanistan, allowing coalition airplanes to use Turkmen
airspace and humanitarian agencies to pass through to deliver aid.
Niyazov also pursued strong nationalistic policies to encourage the use
of the Turkmen language over Russian and banned access to Russian-language
media, leading to an increased exodus of some of the country's most educated
citizens and decimating its school system. Secondary education has been reduced
in Turkmenistan to a required nine years, causing human rights groups to
complain of a deliberate attempt to dumb down the population and prevent
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