"The violent attack is illegal and should be condemned. At the same time, it must be understood as an extreme response to repression," stated Erika Dailey, Director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project/CEP. "Normal channels for addressing citizens' grievances have been cut off for almost a decade. Residents of Turkmenistan seeking to positively influence government policies are frustrated. The assassination attempt is just one manifestation of the social degradation that President Niyazov's policies have bred."
Niyazov has developed Central Asia's most totalitarian government, presenting himself as a prophet and calling himself Turkmenbashi, or head of all Turkmen. In 2001, Niyazov accelerated efforts designed to isolate Turkmenistan from outside cultural influences.
In April of that year, for example, Niyazov ordered the closure of the country's ballet and philharmonic, expressing a preference for artistic expression that "corresponds with the national mentality." In June 2001, he decreed that foreigners wishing to marry a Turkmen national would have to pay a $50,000 fee.
Niyazov has also enforced an effective ban on Russian-language media, including television broadcasts, newspapers and internet web sites. An anonymous Turkmen told the Financial Times in July: "Within five years, no one will know anything about Russian culture."
On August 8 this year, Niyazov renamed the months of January, April and September after himself, his mother and the Ruhnama, a putative history/spiritual guide that he reportedly wrote. He also renamed the days of the week, except Friday.
Niyazov has also taken steps to put his stamp on the country's educational system. The Ruhnama is required in Turkmen schools, and students find higher educational opportunities closed off unless they can pass a state-administered exam on the Ruhnama.
Of late, Niyazov has concentrated on imposing his will on Turkmenistan's economic sphere. According to a Turkmen TV report November 14, Niyazov ordered that all hard-currency transactions in Turkmenistan be handled by the Central Bank. This move effectively increases Niyazov's direct control over transactions in the most lucrative sectors of the economy.
The president-for-life has also sought to keep tight control over key government institutions, especially security services, by carrying out habitual personnel changes. These purges have intensified over the past 12 months, coinciding with the rising political opposition from Turkmen exiles.
The origins of the ongoing campaign to remove potential rivals from government can be traced to the January 5, 2000, firing of Khudaiberdy Orazov, then the head of the central bank. Niyazov accused Orazov of "shortcomings in his work and immodesty in his personal life." In March of 2002, Niyazov carried out an extensive purge of security structures. Those sacked included Muhammed Nazarov, head of the secret police, or KNB, and Defense Minister Gurbandurdy Begenzhov. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
On November 15, while firing the ministers of agriculture and other officials, he announced six-month appointments to head the finance, natural resource and textile ministries. These six-month appointments, revocable without explanation, are an indication that Niyazov does not want his ministers wielding any autonomous authority, some observers say.
Niyazov's purges have been prompted in part by high-profile political defections to the opposition. The rise in the opposition's profile began in November 2001, when former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov announced that he was joining efforts to oust Niyazov, describing the Turkmen leader "authoritarian in style, anti-national in essence." [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The country's economy has doubtless suffered because of the political and social upheaval. However, data on Turkmenistan's economy is hard to get and frequently unreliable, notes Fiona Hill, a scholar with the Brookings Institution. Niyazov has always promised spectacular economic growth, primarily through the export and sale of energy resources. However, Niyazov's sometimes contradictory policies have been seen as a major stumbling block in the development of Caspian Basin energy resources, experts say. [For additional information see the EurasiaNet Business and Economic archives].
Of late, Niyazov's regime has expressed enthusiasm for the construction of a pipeline that would carry energy supplies from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan. So far, however, no investor has publicly affirmed a desire to brave the uncertainties associated with such a project. "The governments have moved ahead with this and there has been some indication of international financial institution support," says Hill. But the project stands virtually no chance of realization without private-sector interest.