Boston, 30 December 1999 (RFE/RL) - Saparmurat Niyazov said Tuesday that he has been persuaded by his supporters to become Turkmenistan's president for life, but Western analysts see the appointment as an orchestrated move.
On Monday, Niyazov told the country's Khalq Maslakhaty, or people's council, that he would discourage the idea of serving in office after 2002.
"Do not ask me to become president for life and do not praise me any more," the leader known as Turkmenbashi, or head of the Turkmens, said in a nationally-broadcast address. "There is nothing eternal in the universe. Under law, my presidential term lasts until 2002 and I shall work up to that date."
"If I am able (to rule after that) we shall see, if not we shall appoint someone else," the western news agency Reuters quoted Niyazov as saying.
After the speech, events moved with surprising speed. On Tuesday, Turkmenistan's parliamentary Medzhlis voted to amend the constitution, allowing Niyazov to assume lifetime powers. On the same day, Niyazov accepted the honor, despite his earlier statement.
"Well, as you have chosen me, I shall do my best to live up to your expectations," he said.
With that, Turkmenistan became the first CIS country to formally abandon presidential elections. While other nations have held popular polls that are democratic in name only, none have dropped the mechanism of periodic voting entirely, until now.
The decision may mark a turning point for democracy in Central Asia and the Caucasus, which have been ruled largely by the same former Soviet leaders who held power before independence eight years ago. Soon, other national cult figures may be encouraged to follow in Niyazov's footsteps.
While true democracy has been scarce, Turkmenistan's case is particularly grievous. The OSCE declined even to send observers to the country's parliamentary elections this month, saying that voters had no options because all opposition parties were banned.
Niyazov's apparent reluctance to extend his term in office seems to have been little more than a show in a country that is dominated by statues of the leader and public works dedicated to his name.
"At a minimum, he's trying to create a demand for himself," said Martha Brill Olcott, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. The pity of the situation is that Niyazov could probably have won an open election easily, if he had been willing to take the chance, Olcott said.
His acceptance of a lifetime term ended a brief day of doubt about Turkmenistan's government, although it did little to answer questions about what will happen when Niyazov ultimately passes from the scene.
The 59-year-old president had previously extended his five-year term through a national referendum in 1994. But Niyazov's heart surgery in 1997 has left a shadow of concern because his autocratic rule has allowed no room for rivals or possible successors. In a recent study of prospects for peaceful succession in the region, Olcott concluded that the greatest risks to stability are in one-man states like Turkmenistan.
Niyazov's statement that he might appoint a successor seemed to be the first hint that he has someone in mind. But with his quick acceptance of lifetime tenure, the identity of any potential future leader remains unknown. The entire notion of naming a successor suggests that Niyazov will not trust a democratic process.
The timing may also be a response to developments in neighboring countries. In Russia, President Boris Yeltsin has defined the future by recommending Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to succeed him. In Azerbaijan, President Heydar Aliyev has furthered speculation about his son Ilham, who was named to a leadership post in the ruling party this month.
But under the constitutions of both countries, the apparent heirs to office must run as candidates in contested elections. Niyazov has now broken the chain of elections in his country, potentially leaving it even less likely to enjoy a peaceful transition than before.
Niyazov's move may also mask uncertainty about his country's struggling economy. Although Turkmenistan continues to publish positive figures about its economic performance, troubles abound.
According to the government, industrial output has risen 13 percent in the first 11 months of this year from the comparable 1998 period. But most of the increase comes from gas sales to Ukraine, for which Turkmenistan has not been paid. Electricity output, which is often seen as a more accurate measure of the economy, has fallen 5 percent.
The unofficial value of the nation's currency, the manat, has dropped by between 33 and 49 percent in the past year, while the cost of basic foods has soared.
Such problems may be behind Niyazov's decision to safeguard his future. But the future of his country may be far less secure.