Niyazov Dies, Leaving No Heir

Posted in Russia | 23-Dec-06 | Author: Anatoly Medetsky and Simon Sar| Source: Moscow Times

Flags flying at half mast Thursday in Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital. Niyazov's death was met with shock and grief.
Flags flying at half mast Thursday in Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital. Niyazov's death was met with shock and grief.
Turkmenistan's president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov died of an apparent heart attack early Thursday, leaving no heir apparent and potentially plunging his country into a bitter power struggle. He was 66.

His death poses a policy challenge for the Kremlin, which relies heavily on the Central Asian country for a sizeable chunk of the gas it sends to Europe. Gazprom had been hoping to buy more Turkmen gas to cover for looming supply deficits at home and abroad.

In a step likely to lead to infighting, government officials within hours picked Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov as interim president -- in apparent violation of the country's constitution, which stipulates that the parliament speaker should take over until elections are held.

The prospects of Turkmenistan sliding into chaos and defaulting on its gas supply commitments appeared to worry lawmakers and experts in Moscow, who advised that the Kremlin try to broker a compromise between various factions in Ashgabat.

The Kremlin on Thursday appeared to be weighing whether to support one of the clans in Niyazov's retinue or side with the largely pro-Russian opposition. Russia is also eager to thwart attempts by the West to increase its influence in the region, which it considers to be within its traditional sphere of influence.

In Niyazov's 21 years of increasingly authoritarian and eccentric rule, most of the country's opposition leaders were either jailed or driven into exile. The ones who fled the country are now deliberating whether to return.

Russia should try to broker a peaceful transfer of power between the country's various clans, said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst.

"They practically don't have any experience of political compromise. They fear each other because they are afraid that the victor will simply slaughter the others," Markov said. "The power at stake is huge. It's the combined power of Stalin, Mao Zedong and some Baghdad sultan plus control over Turkmen gas. It's worth fighting for."

A civil war may erupt, especially if countries interested in Turkmen gas, such as Iran, the United States or Russia, stoke tensions by supporting one or more of the factions or by supplying arms, Markov said.

He called on the foreign ministers of Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to immediately fly to Ashgabat for negotiations.

The stakes are so high that Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller and board chairman Dmitry Medvedev and even President Vladimir Putin could travel to Ashgabat over the next month "to try to cut long term binding gas agreements with either the interim leader or the following leader," said Zeyno Baran, a Central Asia expert at the Hudson Institute, a U.S.-based think tank.

"If that person is weak and needs support from Russia, they may actually reach such deal," she said by telephone. "The only thing we know is that Russia is going to be very aggressively and very quickly trying to move and reach some deals."

Saparmurat Niyazov in May 2005
Saparmurat Niyazov in May 2005
Russia has a three-year contract to buy 50 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas per year, Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said Thursday. He declined any comment on how Niyazov's death could affect the deal.

Gazprom exports 41 bcm of that gas to Ukraine, and would be unable to quickly substitute those supplies should Turkmenistan slide into unrest and fail to meet its obligations, analysts said.

Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council's International Affairs Committee and one of key figures in the country's foreign policy establishment, told Interfax that Russia should "maintain dialogues with all Turkmen politicians."

"One can assume that a struggle for power will begin in Turkmenistan," Margelov said. Since Niyazov had frequently reshuffled his Cabinet and fired top officials on a virtually monthly basis Russia would have to negotiate with all political forces in the country, Margelov said.

In trying to shape Turkmenistan's future Russia would be competing with the United States, the European Union and -- to a lesser extent, China, Turkey and Iran -- which are all interested in securing more gas supplies from the country, a former top Turkmen official said Thursday.

In such an environment, "Russia won't benefit -- in the medium or long term -- from pursuing an exclusively unilateralist approach, as this would entail its full ownership of all the risks involved, to say the least," the official said in an e-mailed statement Thursday. He asked not to be named.

The official said there could be any number of combinations or coalitions among players inside Turkmenistan, but "most of these individual parties will seek Russia's engagement or, at least, to avoid confrontation with the Kremlin."

Gleb Pavlovsky, another Kremlin-connected analyst, warned that Iran could use instability in Turkmenistan to install an Islamic government there.

Niyazov did not pick a successor because of the huge personality cult he created, said Arkady Dubnov, a veteran Central Asia observer at Vremya Novostei. "People of that type just can't talk about a successor; that would mean comparing someone to oneself," he told Ekho Moskvy radio. "But how can you compare someone with the sun?"

One possible contender for power is Niyazov's daughter Irina, who is believed to oversee the personal finances of the Niyazov family, Deutsche UFG said in a note to investors Thursday. Irina Niyazova is married and has lived in Moscow since the early 1990s, RIA-Novosti reported.

Niyazov is believed to have kept the country's extra-budgetary revenues in a Deutsche Bank account outside the country, said Annette B?hr, a Turkmenistan governance expert at Chatham House, a British government-funded research center.

Niyazov's son, Murad, 39, who is actively pursuing business interests in Turkmenistan and abroad, is another possible contender, Deutsche UFG said.

Dubnov noted on Ekho Moskvy that Niyazov and his son had chilly relations.

Also, Akmurad Redzhepov, the head of Niyazov's security service, heads an influential clan, Deutsche UFG said.

"The opposition in Turkmenistan is believed to be weak, and the most likely scenario is that one of the clans in Niyazov's entourage will come to power," Deutsche UFG said.

Alfa Bank chief strategist Chris Weafer said that in Turkmenistan, "like in many other countries in Central Asia, it's the daughter that has the most power."

Russia could find an ally in China in hoping to keep the status quo in Turkmenistan, Weafer said.

"The U.S. and the West in general would like to see more of a radical change, with a view to getting their hands on Turkmen gas," he said.

B?hr of Chatham House said Russia had more leverage in the country, however. "The West is not going to have much of a role. If anyone did it would be Russia," she said.

B?hr said Russia would gain more by backing the Turkmen opposition. "If the opposition gains headway, Russia will have more of a say because they have links to Russia," she said.

One of the opposition leaders, Avdy Kuliyev, currently lives in Russia, she said. A former Turkmen foreign minister, he leads the United Democratic Opposition group. Many other opposition leaders live in Austria. They all announced plans to return to Turkmenistan in the next few days, but the authorities may not admit them back into the country, B?hr said.

Baran of the Hudson Institute said Washington was more focused on Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Afghanistan and would not consider Turkmenistan a priority.

"Ideally, America and Europe should also go and try to talk about [building a] trans-Caspian pipeline. But I'm not sure if they will do it. Turkmenistan is not a priority for either the United States or Europe," she said.

Staff Writer Miriam Elder contributed to this report.