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Turkmenistan: Could Niyazov's Death Lead To Political Struggle, Instability?

President Niyazov in 1991 (ITAR-TASS) WASHINGTON, December 21, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The implications of the death of the Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov are not yet clear. RFE/RL analyst Daniel Kimmage believes his death could lead to some political instability in the country and also to a power struggle. RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari conducted this interview

RFE/RL: What are the implications of Niyazov's death for Turkmenistan? How likely it is that there will be political instability?

Daniel Kimmage: It's very difficult to predict whether or not there will be political instability, but given the fact that the political system of Turkmenistan has been gutted over the last decade and reduced to a single person, what this means is that the succession really could go in any direction. So I'm always reluctant to say that there will be political instability or there won't be but in this particular case there are almost numerous chances for any sort of outcome, precisely because there is so little functioning formal political structure in place after Niyazov reduced everything to his person. So unfortunately in this case we do face the prospect of political instability.

RFE/RL: Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has been named acting head of state. What do we know about him and how likely it is that there will be changes in the policies of the country, both domestic and international?

Kimmage: The very first reaction that we got officially from Turkmenistan is that the policies of Niyazov will be continued but it's really so early right now that it's very difficult to say because, of course, within what remains of the Turkmen political elite -- which we have to remember has been decimated by purges over the last few years -- one can only speculate on the amount of jockeying that is going on so it's not entirely clear this is the individual that will succeed Niyazov, this is [only] the person that is currently there. One of the descriptions that has been quoted -- and there is not a lot of information available -- but one of the descriptions that was quoted is that [Health Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov] is a sort of a member of Niyazov's generation. There is going to be a funeral on the 24th of December and then a meeting on the 26th of December of the [People's Council] and I think in that period we may see other people emerge or perhaps not, so, we'll have to wait for a while.

RFE/RL: So meanwhile we should expect a struggle for power?

Kimmage: I think, of course, a power struggle is only natural. The only situation you can compare this to, perhaps, would be the Soviet Union in the wake of [Soviet leader Josef] Stalin's death and, as we recall, the Soviet Union's political system handled Stalin's death and it did produce a successor. Turkmenistan is perhaps a more extreme case: there is even less of a functioning structured political system so it's only natural that there will be a power struggle, but of course we have to bear in mind that the people that are participating in this power struggle within Turkmenistan, they are not used to functioning as independent political entities. They're used to structuring their careers around a single person; these are minor satellites orbiting around the sun and now the sun is gone so it's very unclear how they'll act, whether or not they will be able to act as independent political actors, which is what makes the likelihood of a power struggle, of course, very great and what makes its outcome so unpredictable.

RFE/RL: What should we expect in the coming days and weeks? I believe according to the constitution there should be general elections in two months.

Kimmage: What I would stress is that in this case the formal mechanism, the constitutional structures, these are going to be a sort of very general guidelines because under Niyazov these things really did not mean very much and of course the power struggle that begins now is going to happen behind closed doors and, in general, we received very little information out of Turkmenistan over the last few years. Now, of course, we don't know what information is going to emerge, we know that there will be a struggle for power. Between now and December 26 is the general time frame for what is going to happen but it is very, very difficult to gauge. We will have to watch very carefully for whatever political announcement comes out of Turkmenistan; we will have to gauge this against the potential political struggle that will be unfolding in the next few days.

RFE/RL: What will be the impact of the death for the Turkmen people? He had influenced every sphere of their life.
Kimmage: One hopes that his death would open the door to some sort of reforms, a loosening up of the political system, there are many positive outcomes that one could hope for -- what we have to remember is that right now there is no predetermined course. There are many possible outcomes for Turkmenistan and for the Turkmen people but there is no guarantee that any single one of them will come true. Of course one has to hope but there is no guarantee that the death of a political figure who dominated the political scene is going to necessarily lead to reform.

RFE/RL: What does it mean for the other countries in the region, for other Central Asian states?

Kimmage: I think it means a number of things: for other Central Asian countries it comes as a reminder that these are, in general, political systems that are structured around a string of presidents who dominate the scene -- of course to a lesser extent than in Turkmenistan -- but it comes as a reminder that these presidents are mortal and that in the event of their sudden death we are left to speculate about these personal factors. That it is not, in general, a stable situation in the region so that's the first general reminder that it provides. The second, of course, is that Turkmenistan occupies an important position within Central Asia as a major supplier of natural gas; natural gas that plays an important role for Russia, natural gas that is part of the general system that includes a European supply of gas. So there are major potential implications, for example, if there would be political instability in Turkmenistan it would affect the shipments of natural gas. It could have a far-reaching domino effect that could reach Europe. So there are many possible implications both on a regional level -- where it reminds us that these are not inherently, terribly stable political systems. To the international geopolitical level it touches on a great level the energy-security questions.

Reaction To Saparmurat Niyazov's Death

Reaction To Saparmurat Niyazov's Death

The late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov (

SUCCESSION WORRIES. RFE/RL's language services gathered early regional reaction to the death of long-time Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: We hope the handover of power is carried out in the framework of the law, that continuity in our relations is ensured, that the new leadership works for the good of the citizens of Turkmenistan, for the good of all those who live in the country, for the development of relations with Russia and for maintaining stability in the Central Asian region.

Russian Deputy Duma Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky: [Niyazov] chose the form of government that suits exactly the conditions of all those who live in Turkmenistan. There is no other way to rule Turkmenistan. He set a standard which an absolute majority, 90 percent of Turkmenistan's citizens, were content about. And he never created his own cult [of personality].

Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov: Niyazov has done a lot for the country. Most importantly, he has been able to subordinate the interests of the gas-production industry to the needs to every Turkmen citizen. They have had access to everything at minimal prices and even for free.

Darigha Nazarbaeva, member of the Kazakh parliament and the daughter of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev: It is very unexpected, strange. It is very hard to comment now. Who will replace him? What political forces might come? With what thoughts and ideas? How would they see the future of the Turkmen nation? Everyone of us have these kinds of questions in our heads now. We shall see what is going to happen. Time will tell.

Bolat Abishev, member of the Kazakh parliament: May peace be upon him. We cannot say anything else about a person who has left us. He gave a lot of help to mothers with many children, for handicapped citizens. There were free gas, flour, and food. These and other issues have been solved, only thanks to him. And, I think now, there is a possibility for more freedom. Whoever comes after him must make changes. Before, everything depended upon him. Now, new people will come to power in this country

Former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze: Some say [Niyazov] was overly strict and demanding and, of course, there was cast-iron discipline in his country. Maybe some people did have some fear of him, but he brought order to the country, built such a large state, developed the capital, and that should be taken into account too. Of course, the methods used to achieve all that are also something to consider, but I personally do not believe that he was a such a dictator that he burdened his subjects with his rule.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's chief of staff, Jawed Ludin: The president of Afghanistan is of course saddened by the news of the death of Turkmen President Niyazov. The Turkmen leader had very good relations with our president.

Moheddin Kabiri, leader of Tajikistan’s Islamic Renaissance Party: [Niyazov's] death will have an impact on the political situation in Turkmenistan and also in the region. We however hope that it will not lead to political instability.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.