Saparmurat Niyazov

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Saparmyrat Nyýazow
Saparmurat Niyazov.jpg
1st President of Turkmenistan
In office
2 November 1990 – 21 December 2006
Preceded by office established
Succeeded by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow
First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan
In office
21 December 1985 – 16 December 1991
Preceded by Muhammetnazar Gapurow
Succeeded by post abolished
Full member of the 28th Politburo
In office
14 July 1990 – 29 August 1991
Leader of the Democratic Party
In office
27 October 1991 – 21 December 2006
Preceded by position established
Succeeded by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow
Personal details
Born Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov
Saparmyrat Ataýewiç Nyýazow

(1940-02-19)19 February 1940
Gypjak, Turkmen SSR, Soviet Union
Died 21 December 2006(2006-12-21) (aged 66)
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Political party Communist Party of Turkmenistan (1962–1991)
Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (1991–2006)
Spouse(s) Muza Sokolova
Russian: Муза Соколова[1]
Children Murat
Profession Electrical Engineer
Religion Sunni Islam

Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov (Turkmen: Saparmyrat Ataýewiç Nyýazow; 19 February 1940 – 21 December 2006) was a Turkmen politician who served as the leader of Turkmenistan from 1985 until his death in 2006. He was First Secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party from 1985 until 1991 and continued to lead Turkmenistan for 15 years after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Turkmen media referred to him using the title "His Excellency Saparmurat Türkmenbaşy, President of Turkmenistan and Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers".[citation needed] His self-given title Türkmenbaşy, meaning Head of the Turkmen, referred to his position as the founder and president of the Association of Turkmens of the World.[2]

Foreign media criticized him for being one of the world's most totalitarian and repressive dictators, highlighting his reputation of imposing his personal eccentricities upon the country, which extended to renaming months for details of his own biography among other things.[3] Global Witness, a London-based human rights organization, reported that money under Niyazov's control and held overseas may be in excess of US$3 billion, of which between $1.8–$2.6 billion was supposedly situated in the Foreign Exchange Reserve Fund at Deutsche Bank in Germany.[4]


Niyazov was born on 19 February 1940 in Gypjak (or Kipchak), just outside Ashgabat in the Turkmen SSR. He was a member of the influential Tekke tribe.[5] According to the official version of his biography, his father died in World War II fighting against Nazi Germany, while other sources contend that he dodged fighting and was therefore sentenced by a military court. The other members of his family were killed in a massive earthquake that leveled Ashgabat in 1948. His mother Gurbansoltan Eje was part of the Cult of personality later. He grew up in a Soviet orphanage before the state put him in the custody of a distant relative.[citation needed]

After finishing school in 1959, he worked as an instructor in the Turkmen trade-union exploratory committee. He then studied at the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute, where in 1967 he received a diploma as an electrical engineer. After graduating, he went to study in Russia, but was expelled a few years later for academic failure.[1]

In 1962 Niyazov started his political career, becoming a member of the Communist Party. He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Turkmen SSR in 1985. He gained this post after Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had removed his predecessor, Muhammetnazar Gapurov, following a cotton-related scandal. Under Niyazov, the Turkmen Communist Party had a reputation as one of the most hardline and unreformed party organizations in the Soviet Union. On January 13, 1990, Niyazov became Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Turkmen SSR, the supreme legislative body in the republic. The post was equivalent to that of president.

Niyazov supported the Soviet coup attempt of 1991.[6] However, after the coup collapsed, he set about separating Turkmenistan from the dying Soviet Union. The Turkmen Supreme Soviet declared Turkmenistan independent and appointed Niyazov as the country's first president on October 27, 1991. On June 21, 1992 the Turkmenistani presidential election of 1992 saw Niyazov - the sole candidate - chosen as the country's first popularly elected president. A year later he declared himself Türkmenbaşy - "Leader of all Turkmen".

In 1994 a plebiscite extended Niyazov's term to 2002 so he could oversee a 10-year development plan. The official results showed that 99.9% of voters approved this proposal. On December 28, 1999, Parliament declared Niyazov President for Life; parliamentary elections had been held a few weeks earlier for which the president had hand-picked all candidates.

Niyazov and his Russian-Jewish wife, Muza, had a son (Murat) and a daughter (Irina).


Front and back of paper currency banknote depicting Saparmurat Niyazov on face
Saparmurat Niyazov is depicted on the 10,000 Manat Banknote

Niyazov became president at the transition of Turkmenistan from a Soviet republic to an independent state. His presidency was characterized by an initial crumbling of the centralized Soviet model that in many respects was unsuited to function as a separate entity; also, there were large amounts of foreign income from gas and petroleum reserves (approximately $2–4 billion as of 2005). There was outside concern about press freedom and to a lesser extent religious rights of minority religious groups. Niyazov made a personal attempt to create a cultural background for the new state of Turkmenistan by writing and promoting the Ruhnama, an autobiography meant to guide the people of Turkmenistan with his ideas and promote native culture (and by extension prohibiting foreign culture). He also took part in creating new holidays with a specific Turkmen nature and introduced a new Latin-based Turkmen alphabet to replace Russian Cyrillic. The Latin Turkmen alphabet consists of: Aa, Bb, Çç, Dd, Ee, Ää, Ff, Gg, Hh, Ii, Jj, Žž, Kk, Ll, Mm, Nn, Ňň, Oo, Öö, Pp, Rr, Ss, Şş, Tt, Uu, Üü, Ww, Yy, Ýý, Zz.[7]

Niyazov became a substitute for the vacuum left by the downfall of the communist system, with his image replacing those of Marx and Lenin. He renamed the town of Krasnovodsk "Turkmenbashi" after himself, and renamed schools, airports and even a meteorite after himself and members of his family. His many, sometimes erratic decrees, and the doting actions of the official Turkmen media gave rise to the clear appearance of a cult of personality. The eccentric nature of some of his decrees, and the vast number of images of the president led to the perception, especially in western countries, of a despotic leader, rich on oil wealth glorifying himself whilst the population gained no benefit.

Despite emphasizing a need to move from central planning to a market economy and to a full democracy during his reign, neither plan progressed. Yearly plans set forth by the government and a centralised economy gave little indication of moving away from state-dominated economics, and the dictatorial nature of many of his decrees and his declaring himself "President for Life" gave little hope as to much progress in these two areas.


Oil and gas

Turkmenistan has the second-largest oil reserves in the former Soviet Union, generating high revenue for the state. The government has used central planning, such as state control of production and procurement, direct bank credits with low interest rates, exchange rate restrictions, and price controls, since it existed as a Republic within the U.S.S.R.[8]

In the years following independence, Turkmenistan invested heavily in plants and machinery in an attempt to convert it from being primarily a supplier of petroleum to a more advanced economy; such investments included oil refineries and a polyethylene plant. In an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper, Niyazov claimed that Turkmenistan was able to process 85% of its domestic output. Additionally, numerous petroleum transportation projects were completed such as a pipeline from the Korpedje field to Kort-Koi in Iran.

In 1991, Niyazov's government put forth a decree granting "the free use of water, gas and electricity and refined salt by the people of Turkmenistan for ten years";[2] when the decree expired, he extended it to 2020.


Turkmenistan's other primary resources are cotton and grain. Niyazov continued the old practice of demanding yearly quotas in agricultural output, and then blaming and/or sacking deputy ministers when quotas were not met.[9][10] Nevertheless, Turkmenistan had an emergent period during which there was heavy investment in plant and machinery so the country could change from a producer of raw cotton to a cotton processor. During Niyazov's presidency, a textile industry was founded in Turkmenistan.

Niyazov introduced the practice of "Melon Day," a harvest festival celebrated on the 2nd Sunday of August; unlike some of his other creations, the celebration of "Melon Day" has continued after his death.


Niyazov put the revival of Turkmen culture as one of the top priorities in Turkmenistan's development. He introduced a new Turkmen alphabet based on the Latin alphabet to replace Cyrillic. The National Revival Movement, an organisation to promote Turkmen culture (Turkmen: "Galkynish"), was also founded.

In many respects, Niyazov's cultural ideas and changes were most visible to external viewers. His renaming of months, as well as days of the week, to Turkmen heroes, poets, historical events,[11] family members and himself raised many eyebrows all over the world. For example, September was renamed Ruhnama in honour of the book written by Niyazov (which he finished writing on 19 September 2001).[12] Not all the changes promoted Niyazov; October was renamed Garaşsyzlyk (Independence) to mark the state's founding on 27 October 1991, and November Sanjar in honour of Sultan Sanjar who led the Seljuqs to their last full flowering. The new names came into effect with the introduction of a new labour law which stated that "the dates of professional holidays are specified by decrees of the President of Turkmenistan".

These names were later abolished by his successor Berdymukhamedov in April 2008.[13]

Internal affairs

One of the earliest acts of the president was to abolish the death penalty. He also granted official human rights to the people, though they were not respected in practice with his government being criticized as one of the worst human rights violators in the world. Press freedom under Niyazov's leadership was much criticised as it was with other former Soviet central Asian states. Turkmenistan's media constantly doted on the president and helped build his cult of personality. In May 2000, the government revoked all Internet licenses except for the state-owned Turkmen Telecom and in June 2001 shut down all Internet cafés.[14] By 2005 there were 36,000 Internet users in Turkmenistan, representing 0.7% of the population.[15]

In March 2004, 15,000 public health workers were dismissed including nurses, midwives, school health visitors and orderlies.[16] In February 2005 all hospitals outside Aşgabat were ordered shut, with the reasoning that the sick should come to the capital for treatment.[17] According to the paper Neitralniy Turkmenistan physicians were ordered to swear an oath to the President, replacing the Hippocratic Oath.[18] All libraries outside of the capital were also closed, as Niyazov believed that the only books that most Turkmen needed to read were the Qur'an and his Ruhnama.[19]

In January 2006 one-third of the country's elderly had their pensions discontinued, while another 200,000 had theirs reduced. Pensions received during the prior two years were ordered paid back to the state.[20] The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan strongly denied allegations that the cut in pensions resulted in the deaths of many elderly Turkmens, accusing foreign media outlets of spreading "deliberately perverted" information on the issue.[21] On March 19, 2007 Turkmenistan's new president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow reversed Niyazov's decision by restoring pensions to more than 100,000 elderly citizens.[22]

In December 2008, the new president also made changes to the national anthem, the chorus of which referenced Niyazov.[23]

Presidential pardons

In keeping with the predominantly Islamic nature of Turkmen society, President Niyazov granted pardons each year on the Laylat al-Qadr (Night of Destiny) in Ramadan month.

For example, in 2005, 8,145 convicts were pardoned including 229 foreign nationals.[24] In 2006 Turkmenistan set free 10,056 prisoners, including 253 foreign nationals from 11 countries. Niyazov said:

"Let this humane act on the part of the state serve strengthening truly moral values of the Turkmen society. Let the entire world know that there has never been a place for evil and violence on the blessed Turkmen soil."[25]

Decrees and laws

  • Niyazov banned the use of lip syncing at public concerts in 2005 as well as sound recordings at "musical performances on state holidays, in broadcasts by Turkmen television channels, at all cultural events organized by the state... in places of mass assembly and at weddings and celebrations organized by the public," citing a negative effect on the development of musical arts incurred by the use of recorded music.[26][27]
  • Niyazov banished dogs from the capital Ashgabat because of their "unappealing odour." [27]
  • According to the Ashgabat correspondent of, right-hand-drive imported cars converted to left-hand-drive were banned due to a perceived increased risk in accidents.[28]
  • Niyazov requested that a "palace of ice", or indoor ice skating rink, be built near the capital, so that those living in the desert country could learn to skate. The rink was built in 2008 and is located near the new Turkmen State Medical University.[29]
  • After having to quit smoking in 1997 due to his resultant heart surgery, he banned smoking in all public places and ordered all government employees to follow suit.[30] Chewing tobacco on Turkmen soil was later banned as well.[31]
  • He outlawed opera, ballet, and circuses in 2001 for being "decidedly unturkmen-like".[32]
  • In February 2004 he decreed that men should no longer wear long hair or beards.[33]
  • He banned news reporters and anchors from wearing make-up on television, because he said he found it difficult to distinguish male anchors from female anchors.[30]
  • Gold teeth were discouraged in Turkmenistan after Niyazov suggested that the populace chew on bones to strengthen their teeth and lessen the rate at which they fall out. He said:

    I watched young dogs when I was young. They were given bones to gnaw to strengthen their teeth. Those of you whose teeth have fallen out did not chew on bones. This is my advice...[34]

Foreign policy

Niyazov with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Moscow Kremlin, June 2000

Niyazov promoted a policy of strict neutrality in foreign affairs, refraining from seeking membership in NATO or GUAM and almost ignoring the CSTO. Turkmenistan has not participated in any United Nations peacekeeping missions. It has however become a member of Interpol.

The full independence of Turkmenistan was recognised by a UN General Assembly resolution “The permanent neutrality of Turkmenistan” of December 12, 1995. As a result in 2005 Turkmenistan would downgrade its links with the Commonwealth of Independent States becoming only an associate member under article 8 of the CIS charter, as such it would not participate in any of the military structures of the CIS.

In 2006 the European Commission and the international trade committee of the European Parliament voted to grant Turkmenistan "most favoured nation" trading status with the European Union, widely seen as motivated by interest in natural gas, after Niyazov announced he would enter a "human rights dialogue" with the EU.[35]


After an alleged assassination attempt on November 25, 2002, the Turkmen government arrested thousands of suspected conspirators and members of their families. Critics claim the government staged the attempt in order to crack down on mounting domestic and foreign political opposition.[36]

The summer of 2004 saw a leaflet campaign in the capital, Aşgabat, calling for the overthrow and trial of Niyazov. The authorities were unable to stop the campaign and the President responded by firing his Interior Minister and director of the police academy on national television.[37] He accused the minister of incompetence and declared: "I cannot say that you had any great merits or did much to combat crime."

Niyazov later announced that surveillance cameras were to be placed at all major streets and sites in Turkmenistan, an apparent precaution against future attempts.


On December 21, 2006, Turkmen state television announced that President Niyazov had died of a sudden heart attack.[38][39] Niyazov had been taking medication for an unidentified cardiac condition. The Turkmen Embassy in Moscow later confirmed this report.

According to the Constitution of Turkmenistan, Öwezgeldi Ataýew, Chairman of the Assembly, would assume the presidency. Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow was named as head of the commission organizing the state funeral. Ataýew was arrested on 21 December 2006 and Berdimuhamedow was subsequently named acting president. Berdimuhamedow and the Halk Maslahaty announced on December 26, 2006 that the next presidential elections would be held on February 11, 2007.[40]

The circumstances of Niyazov's death have been surrounded by some media speculation. Some Turkmen opposition sources also claim that Niyazov died several days before the officially announced date of December 21.[41]

News reports also claimed that Niyazov also suffered from diabetes, ischemic heart disease and kidney failure.[1]

Funeral and burial

Niyazov mausoleum at the Türkmenbaşy Ruhy Mosque, just outside Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.

Niyazov was buried in his ready prepared tomb in Kipchak Mosque on December 24 at his home village of Gypjak, approximately 7 kilometres west of Ashgabat. Prior to being moved to the village, Niyazov's body lay in state in an open coffin in the presidential palace. Many mourners, including foreign delegations, passed by the coffin in a three-hour period. Many of the ordinary citizens wept dramatically as they walked, some even clinging to the coffin and fainting.[42]

Funeral attendees[43]

References and notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Наследником Туркменбаши может стать следователь московской прокуратуры (in Russian). Komsomolskaya Pravda. 2006-12-22. Retrieved 2006-12-22.CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "KP" defined multiple times with different content
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Turkmenistan Fact Sheet, Government & Politics-President". Embassy of Turkmenistan. Archived from the original on 2006-12-05. Retrieved 2006-12-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. BBC News, "Turkmen go back to old calendar", 24 April 2008.
  4. "It's a Gas: Funny Business in the Turkmen-Ukraine Gas Trade" (PDF). Global Witness Limited. April 2006. Retrieved 2010-12-09.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Sabol 2010, p. 10.
  6. Union of Soviet Socialist Republics at Encyclopedia Britannica
  7. Annasoltan, Ŧ¥¶ØGЯ@¶Ħ¥ i₪ Đ£₪Ŧi∩¥ [Typography is Destiny], part 1: between Moscow and Istanbul, 11 January 2010
  8. Badykova, Najia (2004-06-18). "The Turkmen Economy: Challenges and Opportunities". St Antony's College, University of Oxford. Archived from the original on 2006-09-25. Retrieved 2006-12-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Saparmurat Niyazov raps local governors for failures in cotton harvest
  10. Saparmurat Niyazov dismisses grain products association chairman
  11. List of holidays and commemorative days approved in Turkmenistan
  12. Turkmenistan Votes, The Economist, December 30, 2008, Accessed January 5, 2009
  13. "Turkmen go back to old calendar". BBC News. 2008-04-24. Retrieved 2008-04-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Clarke, Michael (2003-01-24). "Turkmenistan. Struggling For News In Turkmenistan". Glenn Hauser's World of Radio. Retrieved 2006-12-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. The World Factbook entry for Turkmenistan information retrieved on August 30, 2006
  16. Whitlock, Monica (2004-03-01). "Troops to replace Turkmen medics". BBC News. Retrieved 2006-12-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Morgan, David (Translator) (2005-02-14). "President of Turkmenistan closes hospitals, libraries and nature reserves". Prima-News. Archived from the original on September 29, 2007. Retrieved 2006-12-22. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "Turkmen Doctors Pledge Allegiance To Niyazov". Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty (RFERL). 2005-11-15. Retrieved 2006-12-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Туркменбаши решил истребить всех стариков (in Russian). 2006-02-03. Retrieved 2006-12-22.CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "...Russian media outlets disseminate "deliberately perverted" information on republic's pension maintenance". 2006-04-02. Retrieved 2006-12-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. "Turkmen leader restores pensions". 2007-03-19. Retrieved 2007-03-19.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. "Turkmen anthem set for makeover", BBC, December 9, 2008.
  24. Turkmen leader pardons 8,145 thousand convicts
  25. "Turkmenistan to set free 10056 prisoners". 2006-10-17. Retrieved 2006-12-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. "Saparmurat Niyazov bans use of "phonograms" at concerts and TV programs". 2005-08-22. Retrieved 2008-08-24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. 27.0 27.1 Hiro, Dilip. Inside Central Asia. New York: Overlook Press, 2009. p227
  28. Turkmenistan bans converted left-hand-drive vehicle imports
  29. Whitlock, Monica (2004-08-11). "Turkmen leader orders ice palace". Retrieved 2010-02-19.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. 30.0 30.1 Osborn, Andrew (2006-12-22). "Saparmurat Niyazov - President of Turkmenistan". The Independent.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. Halpin, Tony (2008-01-21). "Turkmenistan lifts curtain on banned arts". The Times. London.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. Whitlock, Monica. "Young Turkmen face beard ban." BBC. 25 February 2004. Retrieved on 29 August 2009.
  34. "Avoid gold teeth, says Turkmen leader". BBC. 2004-04-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  35. "Double Standard for Dictators". 2004-04-14. Retrieved 2006-12-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  36. "Assassination Attempt A Response To Niyazov's Authoritarian Policies". EurasiaNet. 2002-11-25. Retrieved 2006-12-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  37. Short resume maintained by Reporters Sans Frontières
  38. "Turkmenistan's 'iron ruler' dies". BBC News. 2006-12-21. Retrieved 2006-12-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  39. "President of Turkmenistan dies at 66". 2005-12-21. Retrieved 2006-12-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  40. "Two candidates named for Turkmen presidency". ITAR TASS. 2006-12-26. Retrieved 2006-12-26.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  41. "Turkmenbashi died several days ago" (in Russian). RIA Novosti. 2006-12-21. Retrieved 2006-12-22.CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  42. "Turkmen leader's funeral begins". CNN. 2006-12-24. Archived from the original on April 25, 2009. Retrieved 2006-12-24. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  43. "First VP leaves Turkmenistan". IRNA. 2006-12-25. Archived from the original on 2007-01-12. Retrieved 2006-12-25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  44. "Chinese envoy attends funeral of Turkmenistan's late president". China Economic. 2006-12-25. Retrieved 2006-12-25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  45. "Late President of Turkmenistan laid to rest". Calcutta News. 2006-12-25. Retrieved 2006-12-25.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Sabol, Steven. Turkmenistan: Permanent Transition or Elusive Stability?, in China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, 2010.

Further reading

  • Theroux, Paul. "The Golden Man: Saparmurat Niyazov's Reign of Insanity". The New Yorker, 28 May 2007, pp. 54–65.

External links

Party political offices
Preceded by
Muhammetnazar Gapurow
First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Turkmen SSR
December 21, 1985 – June 21, 1991
Succeeded by
None (Position abolished)
Political offices
Preceded by
New office
President of Turkmenistan
January 19, 1990 – December 21, 2006
Succeeded by
Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow