Niyazov’s Turkmenistan: The Land of the Personality Cult

Islamic Human Rights Commission

5th April 2003

BRIEFING: Niyazov’s Turkmenistan: The Land of the Personality Cult


Since Turkmenistan’s independence from the former Soviet Union, one man, Saparmurat Niyazov, has stood its presidential helm. Like many of the leaders of the emergent Central Asian republics, Niyazov was a former senior Communist apparatchik, and like many his fellow Central Asian dictators, immediately embarked on the road to authoritarianism. But what differentiates Niyazov from the rest of Central Asia’s despots, and here Niyazov enters a league if his own, is the unprecedented level of deification that has elevated Niyazov from atheist technocrat to demigod and reincarnation of Turkmenistan’s personality. This virulent personality cult has personalised every aspect of Turkmenistani life, including the re-naming of the months and days of the week after Niyazov. Not even yoghurt has been spared the Niyazov name. It is this that has earned Niyazov the reputation as Turkmenistan’s resident megalomaniac. Under a one-party system, Niyazov has installed himself as President for Life.

Isolation and Political repression

Under Niyazov Turkmenistan has become an isolated, closed society, perhaps Central Asia’s most repressive country. No opposition is tolerated. Post-Soviet Niyazov rule is characterised by a resort to ethnic nationalism (Niyazov has declared himself to be the Father of the Turkmen) concomitant with a systematic purge of rivals and opponents amongst the intelligentsia. Over the last decade Niyazov has crushed any domestic political opposition (see below), with a number of opposition leaders and activists residing in detention. Although, 1991 to 1993 witnessed limited opposition activity, with strikes and pickets against the increasing despotism of Niyazov’s regime, by 1993 the shadowy National Security Committee (KNB), the reincarnation of the feared KGB, had successfully eliminated all domestic opposition. Since independence Turkmenistan’s economy has rapidly deteriorated, with substantial reductions in health and education spending and an alarming escalation in child morality.

The 1992 Constitution disproportionately deposits power in the recesses of the President, with both the legislature and judiciary acting arms of Niyazov (interestingly damaging allegations of Niyazov’s involvement in drug trafficking have been circulating for sometime). Credible reports cite the use of arbitrary arrest and detention, with torture commonplace. One cited example is the suspicious death in custody of a ‘Turkmenistan Foundation’ (TF) representative, Khoshali Garayev, kidnapped from Tashkent by the KNB, along with fellow TF activist Mukhammetguly Aimuradov, who remains in detention. Freedom of the press, of assembly and association is non-existent. The secular government express absolute control over religious expression and education.

Assault on Islamic institutions

Despite Turkmenistan’s overwhelming Muslim make-up, there is an uncompromising commitment to an unyielding secularism, branded into the 1992 Constitution. Notable is the absence of a declaration of a national religion. No religious organisations are allowed to operate without the government’s approval. The secular government harshly treats Muslim opponents of Niyazov’s regime and exercises absolute control over all Muslim places of worship, censoring their output. Through the state-controlled Council on Religious Affairs, the government controls the (Sunni) Muslim clergy, regulating their hiring, wages and if need be dismissal. This control extends to Islamic religious education, closing down one of Turkmenistan’s only two outlets of Islamic theology. Furthermore, Niyazov’s regime has persistently refused to officially recognise and register Turkmenistan’s long-established Shia (Muslim) minority, a prominent Islamic sect, with reported cases of harassment.


On November 25 2002, Niyazov survived an assassination attempt. Disaffected elements within the structures of Niyazov’s own regime may have been the true operators behind the assassination attempt in response to Niyazov’s two year programme of purges of government structures, not the much maligned and defamed opposition along with Russian and Uzbek complicity as vaunted by Niyazov. The post-assassination aftermath witnessed the decimation of the opposition and the intensification of the ongoing purges of state and security structures and the spectacle of Stalinist-style TV self-denunciations by imprisonment opponents.

Post-assassination purge

Over 200 people were detained, with 32 placed on immediate trial Claims of systematic have been made. These recent events only serve to highlight the paranoia, unpredictably and arbitrariness that has become the hallmarks of the Niyazov’s precarious mind and approach. Most interestingly, immediately after the assassination Niyazov publicly identified the organisers of the attack as being two high-level political defectors from Niyazov’s regime, former foreign minister and ambassador to China, Boris Shikhmuradov and former ambassador to Turkey, Nurmuhammaed Hanamov, along with two prominent victims of Niyazov’s vindictive purges, former Central Bank head Khudaiberdy Orazov and former Deputy Agricultural Minister Saparmurat Yklimov. Both Shikhmuradov and Orazov are important figures; the latter’s removal earmarked the beginning of the current wave of purges of potential rivals to Niyazov’s autocracy in response to the high-profile defection of Shikhmuradov. Since then Niyazov has undertaken the periodical removal of Ministers and other senior officials. In March 2002 the security apparatus was the target, with the head of the KNB, Muhammad Nazarov, and Defence Minister Gurbandurdy Begenzhov sacked. Just prior to the assassination attempt, Niyazov announced both a wave of dismissals and the introduction of six-month tenures for ministry heads, speculated to be another attempt to prevent ministers from becoming entrenched in their respective departments.

Niyazov consolidates position

Despite Shikhmuradov living in exile, on the 26 December 2002 Turkmenstani authorities announced his apprehension. On the 29 December 2002 a clearly coerced Shikhmuradov gave a televised confession of his involvement in the assassination attempt, naming Orazov and Hanamov as co-conspirators. Terming Niyazov a divine gift to the Turkmen nation, the staged managed attire of the confession evoked the Stalinist era of public self-denunciation, eliciting speculation as to whether Shikhmuradov, like many other political detainees, had been subjected to drug-induced confession and torture (this parallels the case of famous Turkmenstani dissent, Durdumurat Khojamukhammed, sentenced to forced psychiatric detention). Following the apprehension of Shikhmuradov and others, Niyazov has been quick to consolidate his position. Both the National Assembly and the Supreme Court, both residents of Niyazov’s office, awarded Niyazov new extended, arbitrary powers to repress the opposition. Promptly after this Turkmenistan enacted a bilateral security agreement with Russia aimed at denying the fractious opposition a base from with to operate from. In the ensuing crackdown not only were suspected opposition sympathisers targeted, but those involved in unrelated civic activities were inexplicably detained. The arrest of Farid Tukhbatullin, head of an ecological club, is an example. This signals a new assault on the little, if virtually non-existent civil society that Turkmenistan possess.


To deflect attention away from his appalling human rights record, Niyazov has successfully wielded the pipeline card to placate any international criticism. The potential compromising of economic interests has been used a justification by America and the West in promoting a strong regime rather than promoting the development of a pluralistic and open society. Turkmenistan emerges as a particularly strategic asset in the lexicon of US geoeconomic interests in light of the much vaunted Trans-Afghan pipeline.

The IHRC issues an unequivocal denunciation of Niyazov’s oppressive regime and recently accelerated repressive measures, especially the post-assassination clampdown and undermining of civil society features. IHRC is particularly perturbed by the extreme nationalism employed by Niyazov and the serve censoring of Islamic outlets. IHRC also expresses its concern over increased US co-operation with the Niyazov dictatorship.


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