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The Mysterious Death of Turkmenbashy the Great

June 1, 2008

©  Reflections on the Ruhnama
By Steve in Wisconsin
Publication date:  June 1, 2008

“The Turkmen sees treachery as worse than anything; he sees it as base. He condemns the traitor.” – Turkmenbashy

On December 21, 2006 the death of Turkmenistan’s first president Saparmyrat Niyazov (Turkmenbashy the Great) caught me by surprise. Somehow it just didn’t seem right. While the subject of his unexpected demise was reported by the mainstream media during the days that followed, I was more intrigued by what was being posted on Russian-language blogs and bulletin boards by the Turkmen diaspora. Although I do not read Russian I frequently use online translation services to monitor the non-English media. Some members of the diaspora claimed that Turkmenbashy was poisoned on behalf of the West which saw him as an obstacle to exploiting Turkmenistan’s vast gas reserves. I remember one post in particular: “They have killed him! He was our god. They killed our god.” Clearly Turkembashy’s sudden death caught the diaspora by surprise as well.

Turkmenbashy was a neutralist who shunned military alliances and worked for regional peace. He remained on good terms with neighboring governments, refused to allow his country to be used as a springboard by foreign rebels, and he held no grudge against Russia for her pre-independence plundering of his country’s resources. To this day Turkmenistan is the only country officially recognized by the United Nations as a neutral state.

Turkmenbashy followed his own agenda. While working for peace he would not be bullied. He stood his ground in the face of pressure from the world’s superpowers and refused to bow before multinational corporations.

Clearly he had to go.

I decided to write this report because Turkmenbashy’s death is still surrounded by mystery. Yes, I know that his death was ruled a heart attack [“Turkmenistan: Heart Attack Killed Leader”, N.Y. Times, Dec. 23 2006, C J Chivers], that he suffered from various medical problems and that the world has now largely “moved on” in the year and a half since this incident occurred. Vanquished are many of the blog comments written by the ‘conspiracy theorists’ whose public conjectures have been deleted or buried beneath thousands of other opinions. So why is it, as I watch events unfold in Turkmenistan, that I see the political, economic and military landscape changing so swiftly in favor of the West now that Turkmenbashy is out of the picture?

The prospect of foul play
The media largely credits the progressive policies of the new president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, with “opening doors” to new alliances and business ventures. The only problem is that he’s not supposed to be the president. According to the constitution, in the event of Turkmenbashy’s death (and in the absence of a designated heir) the presidency of Turkmenistan was to pass to the speaker of parliament – a fellow named Ovezgeldy Atayev. Regrettably he was unable to assume office:

Turkmen speaker Ovezgeldy Atayev arrested
Azeri Press Agency (APA), 21 Dec 2006 19:13

[Excerpt:] – Speaker of Turkmen Parliament Ovezgeldy Atayev has been arrested, APA special reporter in Turkmenistan reports. Criminal proceedings were instituted against the speaker two hours later the news about Saparmurat Niyazov’s death was announced. Under the Constitution, the presidential powers must be transferred to the parliament speaker.

Though Turkmen state television reported that the presidential powers will be transferred to the speaker Ovezgeldy Atayev, later it was announced that the presidential powers were transferred to Deputy Premier Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov. Though it was reported that criminal proceedings were instituted against Ovezgeldy Atayev and he was arrested it is not clarified what he is accused of. A Turkmen source said there are doubts that the president did not die a natural death. Extraordinary session of the People’s Council will be held on December 26.

[Source: http://en.apa.az/print.php?id=18180%5D

APA is an accredited Azerbaijani news agency with a correspondent in Turkmenistan on the day of Turkmenbashy’s death. Already there was speculation that his death was “unnatural”.

To this day the global media continues to report that Turkmenbashy left no successor but this is not true: Mr Atayev, the parliamentary speaker, was his successor. The fact that Turkmenbashy failed to name a different individual only means that he was comfortable with the presidential standard passing to Atayev. After all, it was guaranteed in the constitution that this would occur so why should he reiterate it? Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov assumed control on the basis that Mr Atayev was imprisoned. This is interesting because “Gurby” was the ‘Minister of Health’ – so according to international precedent he would naturally be next in line. Not. The constitution was changed to accommodate Gurby’s new position and he overwhelmingly won the presidential election held soon afterwards.

However, as Turkmenbashy writes in Ruhnama:

The Turkmenistan Constitution is the supreme Law of the state. The norms and provisions stipulated therein have direct effect. Laws and other legal acts that contradict the Constitution do not have legal force.

Ruhnama I, p. 250.

Some public speculation exists that the new president is a son of Turkmenbashy and that this facilitated the changing of the constitution to accommodate him, but if this is true, the fact that he was not designated as successor may indicate that Turkmenbashy felt him unqualified, or there was a conflict in ideology, or he simply didn’t trust him.

In addition to the aforementioned APA article, a report appearing in the Russian media the day following Turkmenbashy’s death, reads in part:
Immediately after the death in Turkmenistan there were rumours that Niyazov was poisoned and that his death occurred a few days earlier… At the outset, the idea of poisoning leads the way events have developed rapidly after the death of Niyazov. Under the Turkmen Constitution, if the president can not perform his duties, until the election of a new [president] presidential powers pass to the Parliament. Until yesterday, this post was filled by Ovezgeldy Atayev… After a couple of hours he was taken into custody… The Security Council decided to appoint Vice-Premier, Minister of Health and Medical Industry Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov.
[Source: News.ru, 22-Dec-2006, 08:44, translated]

The imprisonment of Atayev was necessary to create a situation without precedent in the constitution thus leading to ‘special measures’ that resulted in the Minister of Health becoming next in line for the presidency.

John C K Daly, in an article for The Jamestown Foundation titled “The Curious Death of Turkmenbashi”, surmized:
The unexpected death of Turkmenbashi (Leader of the Turkmen), Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov, in the early morning of December 21, 2006 in Ashgabat of “acute heart failure,” had the rumor mills in that isolated capital swiftly spinning. The diagnosis was announced the same day. The medical commission investigating Niyazov’s death as well as the certified post-mortem report stated that the cause of death was acute cardiac arrest. Dr. Hans Meissner, Niyazov’s German cardiologist, confirmed that the cause of Niyazov’s death was a heart attack, despite a medical examination several weeks earlier that had given him a clean bill of health. Niyazov had ruled Turkmenistan 21 years to the day, taking over the country on December 21, 1985.

The government itself hardly quelled the issue, commenting that a possible contributing factor was “diabetes mellitus.” According to several sources, Niyazov had a toe amputated several years ago due to diabetes complications, while local physicians speaking on condition of anonymity said that the president had weak blood vessels, which could have led to cerebral hemorrhage.

Only a handful of foreign correspondents were in Ashgabat when Niyazov died, and many Western media reports concentrated on the more garish aspects of his “cult of personality,” leaving many questions about Niyazov’s passing unanswered. At stake is the personal control of billions of dollars in natural gas revenue from the world’s fifth largest natural gas reserves, estimated by the Central Intelligence Agency in 2002 at 1.43-trillion cubic meters. (The Online Turkmenistan Information Center states that the country’s reserves could be as high as 15.1-trillion cubic meters.)

Did Niyazov die of natural causes, or were darker forces involved? Speculation swiftly began to circulate that the latter was the case. In trying to uncover Niyazov’s mysterious sudden end, a useful caveat to keep in mind would be Lucius Cassius Longinus Ravilla’s old Latin adage Cui bono (to whose benefit).

While rumors are rife, few are willing to openly suggest that Niyazov might not have died a natural death, or even died on December 21, as was reported. Indicating possible government foreknowledge of Niyazov’s demise, the day before the “light of all Turkmen’s death,” a spokesman of the Uzbek National Customs Committee said that Turkmenistan unexpectedly closed its border with Uzbekistan.

[Source: http://www.jamestown.org/docs/Jamestown-DeathofTurkmenbashi.pdf%5D

The autopsy performed on Turkmenbashy concluded the cause of death was “accute heart failure,” however as Daly points out in the above article:
Murder by poisoning is difficult to prove because a medical examiner collecting tissue samples must forward them to state crime laboratories for testing, which can take days. While many poisons like thallium leave residual traces in the body, some poisons disappear after death, such as cyanide. A person can die from cyanide poisoning, but the cyanide may not be detectable after death. Furthermore, embalming with formaldehyde interferes with tests for cyanides. There is no indication that such toxicological tests were even carried out.

Turkmen former Foreign Minister Avdy Kuliev, in an article entitled “Niyazov Always Feared Dying an Unnatural Death,” writes about the number of peculiarities surrounding Niyazov’s death. Kuliev is quick to note the facts: Niyazov seemed healthy just before his death; Meissner, his German personal physician of many years, was not involved in the autopsy and Berdymukhammedov in a rapid manner quickly assumed power. Kuliev even speculates that those involved might not only have been Turkmen but “also…outside forces.”

[Daly, ibid., citing : Erkin Turkmenistan, December 28, 2006.]

The foreign affairs blog “Foreign Notes” mentioned in its post of Dec. 22, 2006 titled “Niyazov poisoned too?”:
Niyazov’s personal treasurer, Aleksandr Zhadan, apparently disappeared on the day before his death. ‘Very important documents’ have also gone missing. Zhadan was one of Niyazov’s closest and most influential personal friends, responsible for attending Niyazov’s every need.

Niyazov had between $2 and $3 Bn salted away in Deutsche Bank accounts under his own personal control.

[Source: foreignnotes.blogspot.com/2006/12/niyazov-poisoned-too.html]

Suspicious indeed. Even more suspicious is the new Turkmen leader’s reluctance to track down these funds.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), in an article written by Gulnoza Saidazimova, titled: “Turkmenistan:  Where is Turkmenbashi’s Money?” reads in part:

Andrei Grozin, a Central Asia expert at the Moscow-based Institute of the CIS, believes Berdimukhammedov has control over Niyazov’s money now and therefore is not interested in divulging information about Turkmenistan’s international financial transactions.
[Source: http://www.rferl.org/content/Article/1079155.html%5D

Ah, that would explain it.

A puppet on a Western string
Turkmenbashy writes in Ruhnama:
We have no grudge against anybody, and we have no foe burning with a great passion for revenge. So, when the general situation is like that, where is the logic in us entering and founding various political, economic, and military unions?

Ruhnama I, p. 54.

Turkmenistan has changed under President Berdimukhammedov. This is apparent in a recent article by Bruce Pannier – who reports a scenario which would have been impossible under Turkmenbashy’s leadership:
NATO Finds New Partner In Central Asia
RFE/RL, May 30, 2008

[Excerpt:] – Several high-ranking NATO, U.S., and EU officials have been making trips to Turkmenistan for more than half a year now, but most reports pointed to talks focusing on potential Turkmen natural-gas exports to Europe.

It is apparent now that energy exports were not the only topic of discussions.

The German magazine “Der Spiegel” this month printed a report about NATO planes landing at military air bases in Turkmenistan. Michael Laubsch, an expert on Central Asia and the head of the Bonn-based Eurasian Transition Group (ETG), concurs with the report.

He says the article “was based on our recent reports” and “we fully confirm this information. Starting with May 15, our correspondents and informants in Turkmenistan reported that the transport flights between Western Europe and Afghanistan via Turkmenistan increased by 20 percent. So [NATO] already started to focus more on the air bases in Turkmenistan to make transport flights from the West to Afghanistan via Turkmenistan. I think this is the first practical solution regarding the negotiations which took place between the Turkmen government and NATO.”

Reaching Out To The West

In hindsight, there was a clue something new was happening when Berdymukhammedov went to Bucharest for the NATO summit, the first such visit by a Turkmen president. Farhat Ilyasov, an independent expert in Moscow, tells RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service that a one-on-one meeting that Berdymukhammedov had with U.S. President George W. Bush indicated Turkmenistan’s relationship with the West was shifting.

“The active contact of Berdymukhammedov with the West, in particular with American officials, and the fact that at the last NATO summit, which Berdymukhammedov attended, and at which only Berdymukhammedov had a personal meeting with President Bush, such things do not happen accidentally in big politics,” Ilyasov says.

“Who is Berdymukhammedov and who is Bush, that [Bush] would give him a personal meeting,” he adds. “This indicates that by that time many questions were already worked out and it’s highly probable that serious progress on the part of the U.S. and NATO had already been made.”

The Bucharest summit paved the way for NATO to use land routes from Europe to Afghanistan through the CIS, and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan are all part of NATO’s Euro-Afghan delivery corridor for nonlethal cargo. Still, the landing of military planes in Turkmenistan was again more than Turkmen or NATO officials had revealed publicly.

The ETG’s Laubsch tells RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service that this might just be the start of military cooperation between Brussels and Ashgabat. “I think the negotiations between the Turkmen government and NATO were finalized already and I think that we can expect in the nearest future that more NATO forces will be located in Turkmenistan, definitely,” he says.

Allowing NATO the use of military air bases is already a bold move for Turkmenistan, which risks the wrath of Russia and southern neighbor Iran in forging closer ties with the Western alliance.

There is also the question of Turkmenistan’s official status as a neutral country. Turkmenistan has always refused to participate in military alliances because of this special status.

Ilyasov says the Turkmen government and NATO might simply use special phrasing to preserve Turkmenistan’s neutrality.

[Source: http://www.rferl.org/content/Article/1144519.html%5D

No longer does the President give more than ‘lip service’ to his country’s formerly cherished neutrality. In fact he has ordered that Neutrality Arch, the tallest monument in Ashgabat, be dismantled and moved to the edge of town – ‘out of sight, out of mind’ as the old saying goes. He plans to erect an even taller structure in honor of the Constitution (not the one he violated but the new one he’s writing).

A RFE/RL article dated May 27, 2008, titled: “Turkmenistan:  President Orders Major Changes To Constitution” reads in part:
A constitutional commission will draft the changes at the request of the State Commission for Constitutional Reforms, which is headed by President Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov.

Expected amendments include lengthening the presidential term and otherwise enhancing the already-powerful presidency, as well as scrapping a rubberstamp superlegislature known as the Halk Maslahaty (People’s Council) in favor of a more transparent but long-marginalized parliament, the Mejlis.

[Source: http://www.rferl.org/content/Article/1144502.html%5D

It is important that Gurby weaken the authority of the Halk Maslahaty because this was the council that appointed Turkmenbashy president-for-life (a moot point under the circumstances) and bestowed upon him the white robe and palm staff symbolic of the Prophet Muhammad.

President Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov is swiftly distancing his country from Turkmenbashy’s legacy. He has ordered the removal of his predecessor’s statues and portraits. He is reprinting the currency without Turkmenbashy’s picture. He is having Neutrality Arch dismantled and (supposedly) relocated to the edge of the city. Needless to say these symbols are visible reminders to Turkmenistan’s citizens that the new president is acting contrary to the policies established by Turkmenbashy.

In the short 18-months since Turkmenbashy’s death, with the exception of the country’s presidential election, the world’s media has largely forgotten the “Father of all Turkmen” except to malign him in contrast to the new leader. Forgotten are the early press reports from foreign media inside Turkmenistan at the time of Turkmenbashy’s death and their allusions to him being poisoned. Forgotten are the shadowy events surrounding Berdimukhammedov’s ascension to the presidency – in violation of the constitution – after the rightful successor was promptly imprisoned. Instead we hear about Turkmenistan’s personable new leader who is poised to make reforms and embrace the world.

Personally I do not believe that Turkmenbashy died a natural death. Instead I see the murder of an ‘independent thinker’ whose policies were roadblocks to foreign profiteering and who hindered the ambitions of certain world powers desiring to benefit from Turkmenistan’s peaceful, yet strategic, location in the crucible of Central Asia. One need only look at a map and review the estimates of the country’s gas and resources to see that a man like Turkmenbashy – a head of state who wrote books of philosophy and poetry – was totally unacceptable to the world’s powers-that-be.

Turkmenbashy writes:

I have repeated many times in my speeches that the Turkmen in history were not defeated by external forces but were defeated by internal forces.

Ruhnama I, p. 262.

How true. A premonition, perhaps?

Turkmenbashy’s vision of a Golden Age – an era of peace, prosperity and spiritual enlightenment – is not possible without strict adherence to Ruhnama. This is a course the new president has rejected.

The loss of Turkmenistan’s de facto neutrality and its embrace of military alliances will only invite trouble.


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