Death of a Dictator

Sometimes, a writer’s intentions are overtaken by an unexpectedly rapid progression of events.

tm flag.jpg

This piece was going to start with an observation that, in recent weeks, we’ve had repeated discussions at Harry’s Place on the topic of human mortality: and specifically on whether it is legitimate to celebrate the death of someone whose actions in life had caused great harm to many.

It was going to go on to say that, all things considered, it would be reasonable to foresee that in the weeks and months ahead – with Saddam Hussain having been sentenced to death, and that sentence recently confirmed; and with Fidel Castro seemingly approaching the end of his regime- there could well be a reprise of such discussions here.

In any case, the events of this morning notwithstanding, this post is not about Saddam Hussain. Nor is it about Iraq.

Instead it is about a less bloody dictatorship than Saddam’s Iraq;
a far away country about which we know little: Turkmenistan.

The death of that country’s dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov a.k.a. “Türkmenbaşy”, “Father of All Turkmen” was widely reported earlier in this month. As is invariably the case when the mainstream Anglophone media pick up some information on this country, it was accompanied by references to some of the “wackier” edicts introduced under his
reign: the banning of gold teeth, lip-synching to music, ballet, smoking in public places, and so on.

One of the most exceptional features of Niyazov’s regime, beyond the all-encompassing cult of personality around the leader, and extreme suppression of any actual or potential opposition voices – which, terrible although such things are did not set the regime apart from other extreme dictatorships – were the extraordinary measures that it took, most notably in its last years, to undermine the health and education systems of the country, which were arguably the most positive legacy of the Soviet era.

Although it remained unclear whether these instructions were followed to the letter, in early 2005 it was reported that all hospitals outside the capital city, Aşgabat, should close, and that sick people should attend those in the city for treatment. (Needless to say, such an instruction would be wholly impractical and have devastating consequences in even a relatively compact and wealthy state – such as, say, the UK, or the Netherlands. But in a sparsely-populated and relatively impoverished land of great desert expanses…)

What happened to education had even greater detrimental consequences: on the one hand, university courses were abbreviated and stripped of much content, while libraries across the country were closed. And the cult of personality intervened – everywhere. Just as in the USSR, so knowledge of “diamat”, dialectic materialism, was assessed as a compulsory part of all university courses, so in Niyazov’s Turkmenistan knowledge of Niyavov’s own writings, notably the “Ruhnama”, “Book of the Soul” was an obligatory part not only of university education, but of school education: Knowledge of the test was reportedly demanded not only by those taking driving tests, but of those seeking to obtain qualification- or those who were already qualified- as physicians or surgeons.

Teachings from the “Ruhnama”-Paolo Coelho-style vacuities, essentially, as far as I am aware, were mixed with Islam, as well: the largest mosque in Central Asia was constructed in the President’s native village. Like other grand mosques in the country, such as this one in Aşgabat, it was apparently financed by one of the major French telecoms and constructions sector companies.

Needless to say, those centres of religious worship – among them Islamic, Christian and Hindu ones – which would not bend their teachings to those of the regime were comprehensively suppressed.

In any case, in the latter years of Niyavov’s regime, in which all power had effectively been usurped by the President – who, contrary to many reports had rejected an attempt by the entirely loyal parliament to name him as “President for life” not through modesty, but on the grounds that the Constitution explicitly prohibited any limitation on the Presidential term of office – it was increasingly easy to envisage a period, following Niyazov’s death – expected to be, say, 15, 20 years hence, in which the complete destruction of intellectual life or political or religious debate in the country would bring about a state of affairs in which the apparently easy answers provided by the fundamentalist Islam, represented in this region, above all, by Hizb-ut-Tahrir, could take root. (Such fanaticism does not have a wide following in Central Asia, but worries several governments in part because the region where it is most influential – the Ferghana Valley – is shared between several states as well as being densely populated)

I am inclined to agree with Tim Newman, of “White Sun of the Desert” (although now based far from any desert of sand), when he writes,

Fortunately, I think his death may have come too early for Islamic radicals to move in. Had Niyazov been around for another decade, education in the country would have been almost eliminated in all meaningful sense

(Tim also quotes from an excellent article published in the Economist earlier in the year, which outlines in greater details some of the state’s attacks on health and education)

Now, where this leaves Turkmenistan remains most unclear.

On the one hand, unlike some (or indeed, most) of the other post-Soviet Central Asian states, Niyazov had not groomed one of his own flesh and blood as an apparent successor: there is, thankfully, no equivalent of “Gugusha” Gulnora Karimova nor Darigha Nazarbayeva – or indeed of İlham Aliyev, Ural Rakhimov nor Ramzan Kadyrov– in Turkmenistan.

On the other – and in the absence of any concept of balance of powers or conventions regarding a constitutional transfer of powers whatsoever (Niyazov having assumed multiple titles for himself, and having felt free to appoint or dismiss ministers, regional governors, and other state officials at will)- there does appear to be a chosen successor: Kurbanguly Berdymuhammedov who will take part in an election in February that one can only reasonably expect, unfortunately, to be even less truly democratic than those held over the last couple of years in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan.
This is, of course, far from ideal. And relatively little of Berdymuhammedov’s character – portrayed as a regime loyalist – seems to be known. This transfer -if it comes about – is likely to be one in the Soviet fashion, and not the type that brought forth a Gorbachev. So, in a sense, there is not so much to celebrate in Niyazov’s demise.

One lesser known facet (in the west) of Niyavov’s Turkmenistan was its –almost obsessive – commitment to what has been officially termed “permanent neutrality”.

Given the country’s location – in a region in which Russia, China, the USA/NATO, Iran and Turkey have all been seeking to gain influence in recent years, quite apart from the likes of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and that Turkmenistan shares borders with Afghanistan and Iran, as well as two countries that have frequently been at odds with each other: Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – this declared neutrality might appear to make some sense. Turkmenistan has, uniquely among the post-Soviet Central Asian states, not signed up to any of the international organizations, be they economic-based or security-based, that have been formed in the region -most notably the The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or GUUAM/GUAM – apart from the Commonwealth of Independent States, which, arguably, long ago served its role as permitting (most of) the USSR an “amicable divorce” and which has since failed to find any other sustained or credible role. Indeed, Turkmenistan has sought to distance itself even from that organization. One could argue that few countries – with North Korea being the obvious exception- are so isolated internationally.

In reality, Turkmenistan’s closest ally has been Russia: Although, again unusually for the region, there are no Russian (or any other foreign) military bases or troops in Turkmenistan, the country’s supplies of natural gas – largely exported by way of Russia or Russian-owned pipelines – have served to form a mutuality of interests: the amended gas deal accepted by Ukraine (or forced upon it) last winter ensured that the relatively cheap gas that Ukraine was to receive would be Turkmenistani, rather than Russian.

Now, as in the manner of things on the internet: there is all manner of nonsensical speculation and talk of more utter rubbish : “America (or should that be AmeriKKKa) killed Niyazov!” (Absolute nonsense!): “Iran is waiting to make its move into Turkmenistan!” (Absolute nonsense!)

For more credible and well-informed analysis I would recommend the likes of Eurasianet, the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, or the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst.

In any case, to return to the starting point of this piece: the death of a dictator, and how one should respond to such an event.

I am inclined to say, that in the instance of Saparmurat Niyazov and Turkmenistan – whatever comes next in Turkmenistan can surely, hopefully, surely, only be better than what has happened in this land over the last 15 years. This man misled his people severely and cut them off from the world, denied them so much of value, punished dissenters severely (although, strangely, not by way of capital punishment, which was, most unusually for the region, outlawed in 1999). Thank heavens that he died in 2006, and not in 2016 or 2026. Although Turkmenistan is most unlikely to become a democracy overnight, or indeed any time soon, what follows the Niyazov regime- where one man’s lunacy impacted negatively upon an entire nation – could barely be worse. One hopes that the country will open up to the outside world a little more, and that the government will open up to its people more than they have too.