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Last Updated: Friday, 22 December 2006, 01:35 GMT
Leader's death leaves uncertain future
By Natalia Antelava
BBC News

A giant poster of the president is part of independence day celebrations (file image)
Mr Niyazov dominated the country for more than two decades
Turkmenbashi, the self proclaimed leader of all Turkmens, was a dictator like no other.

The eccentricity of his rule, the golden statues he had built to himself and bizarre decrees he used to issue, have always succeeded at taking the world's attention away from the grim reality of Saparmurat Niyazov's Turkmenistan.

Now, with the main hero gone, reality is all there is left, and it does not seem as if anyone had been prepared to deal with it.

Mr Niyazov's sudden and fatal heart failure could have immense implications.

The heat in European homes, the war in the neighbouring Afghanistan and the fragile stability of the whole of Central Asia will be affected by how Turkmenistan deals with the unprecedented political uncertainty that Mr Niyazov's death had brought.

For 21 years Mr Niyazov had dominated the nation that sits on the world's fifth-largest natural gas reserves. The fact that he shared it with five million others never seemed to matter, for in Turkmenistan Turkmenbashi was the only one who counted.

Mr Niyazov tolerated no dissent, allowed no freedom of thought and created one of the most elaborate personality cults the world has ever seen.

He had an absolute control not only over the country's massive gas deposits, but, he claimed, over the hearts and minds of people too.

Turkmens were like Martians - and for as long as the gas flowed, nobody put any effort into understanding the situation
Daniil Kislov

The weirdness of his regime seemed to have no limit, logic is what it often seemed to lack.

He had built an ice palace in the middle of the desert, banned beards and ballet, shut down all rural hospitals and renamed months of the year after his family members. His book Rukhnama became the base of the country's education system.

But his real legacy maybe that of extreme poverty, and crumbling healthcare and education systems.

With his portraits on every corner, and no political institutions in place Turkmenbashi was all that held Turkmenistan together.

Succession crisis

As the sombre presenter pronounced Mr Niyazov's death on national television, as officials declared a week of mourning, and workers took down New Year decorations from the streets of the capital, Ashghabad, observers talked about the emerging signs of a succession crisis.

Mao of Turkmenistan

According to the Turkmen constitution, the head of the country's legislative body succeeds the president until the new elections are held.

But on Thursday the prosecutor-general initiated criminal proceedings against the head of the legislature, banning him from taking up the post.

Deputy Prime Minister Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was named an acting president.

On 26 December the People's Assembly of Turkmenistan, which is the upper house of parliament, will discuss the succession, with Ministers of National Security and Defence, as well as the head of the Presidential Bodyguards rumoured to be the three most likely candidates for the presidential election.

This, according to the constitution, is due to take place within the next two months.

In the meantime, exiled opposition groups abroad claim they are ready to return to the country to fight for power.

Regional repercussions

After years of isolation, Turkmenbashi's death may open a window of opportunity for greater powers to spread their influence too. The US, Russia and increasingly China are vying to re-assert their positions in Central Asia.

Gazprom headquarters in Moscow
Russia's gas giant is the main buyer of Turkmen gas

With Afghanistan and Iran next door, Washington will keep a close watch on Turkmenistan, although it is Moscow that has the most at stake.

Russia's energy giant Gazprom is the larger buyer of the Turkmen gas, which it sells to Ukraine and then Western Europe.

But Daniil Kislov, director of the Central Asian Information Centre in Moscow and founder of the internet portal, says that Kremlin is as unprepared to deal with Turkmenbashi's death as Washington.

"It took Moscow by complete surprise. All of the Kremlin's policies towards Turkmenistan show that Moscow never gave a thought to what will happen after Turkmenbashi goes - it never put any effort into understanding Turkmenistan," he said.

"Turkmens were like Martians - and for as long as the gas flowed, nobody put any effort into understanding the situation. And same goes for Washington, and Turkmenistan's neighbours.

"Now everyone will have to deal with the aftermath."

'I will miss him'

Ahead of the Sunday's funeral the situation in Turkmenistan remains calm, but the government is taking precautions.

The border with the neighbouring Uzbekistan has been closed, and the authorities have put further restrictions on the already rigid entry visa requirements.

The system that Turkmenbashi has created, the government has announced, will be preserved.

And in Turkmenistan at least, this is in fact what some want to hear.

Residents of the capital Ashghabad say they are in shock and fearful of instability.

"Everybody is talking about the golden statues, but Turkmenbashi did some good things too," one student said on condition of anonymity. "Many people here are genuinely upset, and many are crying. Personally I will miss him."

If Turkmenbashi's death unleashes instability, the rest of the region, and indeed the world, may miss him too.

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