Saparmyrat Niyazov became the first president of the new republic and was " president for life" until his death in 2006. While acknowledging that his cult of personality resembles that of Soviet dictator Joseph V. Stalin, President Saparmyrat Niyazov claimed that a strong leader is needed to guide the republic through its transition from communism to a democratic form of government.
Born in Ashgabat, capital of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, on February 19, 1940. His father, Atamurat, was killed in 1942 while fighting the Germans in the Caucasus. His mother, Gurbansoltan, and two brothers perished in a 1948 earthquake that leveled Ashgabat. The young Saparmurat was raised first in an orphanage and later in the home of a relative.
He joined the Communist Party in 1962, and in 1967 he graduated from the Polytechnic Institute in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). A job at a power plant in the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) led to a series of increasingly important positions in the local Communist Party bureaucracy. In 1985, after a brief stint in Moscow as an instructor at the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Niyazov became chairman of the Turkmen SSR's Council of Ministers and first secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party.
Saparmyrat Niyazov, who was president of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic at the time of independence, was a Turkmen of the Teke tribe who was born in 1940. Trained as an engineer, Niyazov rose through the ranks of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan, reaching the top of the party hierarchy as first secretary in 1985. During his tenure, Niyazov remained aloof from glasnost and perestroika, the reforms of CPSU First Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev, even terming Gorbachev's program "pseudo-reform." When Moscow hard-liners attempted to unseat Gorbachev in the coup of August 1991, Niyazov refrained from condemning the conspiracy until after its failure was certain.
Besides serving as head of the Democratic Party (as the reconstituted Communist Party of Turkmenistan is called) and chairman of the advisory People's Council and the Cabinet of Ministers, Niyazov also appoints the procurator general and other officers of the courts.
Described by those who knew him during the Soviet era as self-effacing and ingratiating, the once-modest party functionary rapidly established himself as the center and source of all power in independent Turkmenistan. By 1993, he had assumed the title Turkmenbashi (head of all the Turkmen). In criticizing Turkmenistan's political leadership, experts cited the single-party system, strict censorship, repression of political dissent, and the "cult of personality" that has formed around President Niyazov. Niyazov's name has been given to streets, schools, communal farms, and numerous other places; his portrait and sayings receive prominent public display; the country's mass media give him extensive exposure that always characterizes him in a positive light; and a law "Against Insulting the Dignity and Honor of the President" is in force.
Niyazov stamped out not only dissent, but the very possibility of dissent, using his security services to remove all potential threats to his power. Second, he encouraged a cult of personality, dotting the landscapes with monuments to himself, renaming the months of the year, and authoring a book -- the "Ruhnama," or "Book of the Spirit" -- that became a compulsory part of curricula at all levels of the country's educational system.
The Niyazov era was characterized by the official "Golden Age" ideology, whereby Niyazov promoted himself as the "Father of Turkmen Nation." His long deceased parents and brothers were recruited to become role models for the country. Community elders were employed to support Niyazov's cult and to appease minorities. Photos of a young Niyazov pervaded schools. Niyazov managed to occupy the minds of an entire generation. Young Turkmen who are now 25-30 years old remember him as a figure who built their statehood.
To build this father-like image, he used various tools, for example copying the practice of past Turkmen leaders and prominent Muslims by writing the Ruhnama - an epic meant to provide spiritual guidance. Niyazov sanctified his own family, virtually creating a cult for his mother Gurbansoltan, father Atamurad, even his brothers, who died in Ashgabat's earthquake without reaching even adolescence. All issues involving women invoked the name of Niyazov's mother. His father served as an example of the brave soldier and excellent accountant, apparently his profession. Military schools and economic institutes were named after him.
Niyazov underwent major heart surgery in 1997, after which he quit smoking, ordered all his ministers to do likewise and banned smoking in public places. When Niyazov started to go bald after the operation he resorted to Chinese herbal remedies, he said, to save his people from the "unpleasantness" of having a bald leader.
Niyazov survived an apparent assassination attempt in 2002, responding with purges and show trials. In a memorable and disturbing spectacle, Boris Shikhmuradov, a former deputy prime minister, gave a self-abasing videotaped confession in which he called himself a "criminal" and Niyazov a "gift to the Turkmen people."
There are reports that the disease that struck down Turkmenbashi (President Niyazov) was type 2 diabetes. It is said that near the end of his life, due to complications related to diabetes, President Niyazov nearly had his legs amputated and at times could barely walk.
Turkmenistan's first President, Saparmyrat Niyazov, died at approximately 0100 local time on 21 December 2006. Under Article 60 of Turkmenistan's constitution, the Chairman of the Mejlis, Owezgeldi Atayev, is interim president, with a nationwide public presidential election to follow within two months; the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council) determines the date of the election and the Central Election Committee determines election details. The interim president, Atayev, may not run as a candidate in the presidential election.
When Turkmenistan's dictator, Saparmyrat Niyazov, suddenly died, published accounts from Central Asia of local reactions to the news reflected a balance between hope for improved conditions and fear of internal instability intensified by external influences. Immediately following his death, a number of Central Asian politicians and some, though not the majority, of analysts in Central Asia and Russia expressed fear concerning an eruption of instability in Turkmenistan. Niyazov did not concern himself with choosing a successor. To all intents and purposes, he was so confident of his exclusivity that he did not even wish to think that someone might replace him one day. Nobody dared remind him of a successor. A quasi-dynastic change of power patterned after Azerbaijan is not likely - Niyazov's son Murad does not have any support at home.
Deputy Prime Minister Kurbangeldy Berdymukhamedov has been appointed Acting President of Turkmenistan. He was in charge of Turkmenbashi's funeral. He is also viewed at home as a weak, rubber-stamp politician without serious influence. Berdimuhamedov, consolidated power by decisive measures. When Berdimuhamedov came to power, he removed the many photographs and some of the statues of his predecessor. Niyazov was no longer an ever present icon in the corner of the television screen. Slowly, but surely, officials swapped their Niyazov pins for Turkmen flag pins. The reference to Niyazov in the national anthem was removed and replaced by one to the Turkmen people. Western observers cheered Berdimuhamedov's dismantling of Niyazov's cult of personality.
Most secondary school textbooks were revised to remove all text devoted to former president Niyazov and his family, although a picture of Niyazov continued to appear on the first page of each textbook. Text devoted to President Berdimuhamedov’s “New Revival” ideology replaced the previous text on Niyazov and his family. Despite a 2008 Ministry of Education report stating that all textbooks had been completely revised, only approximately half of them had been revised at the end of 2011.
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