Turkmenistan Rudderless After President's Death

The death of Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov, also known as Turkmenbashi, or "Father of all Turkmen," leaves a power vacuum in an energy rich nation built around a cult of personality. Niyazov died at age 66, after more than two decades in power.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's now go to former NPR correspondent Lawrence Sheets to talk about the death yesterday of Turkmenistan's president. And this is in a country with immense natural energy resources and which had a very unusual ruler in recent years. And Lawrence Sheets, I understand you met this man once.

Mr. LAWRENCE SHEETS (Former NPR Correspondent): Yes, I met him in the late 1990s when he came to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia for meetings with the government here. He was definitely charismatic. Anyone who can build this type of personality cult would be a charismatic. He had the - I would - he had the aura of a faith healer but the demeanor of a Soviet bureaucrat. He was a very strange animal.

INSKEEP: He changed his name to Turkmenbashi to reflect that he was - what? What does that mean - the father of the Turks?

Mr. SHEETS: The father of all Turkmen.

INSKEEP: Turkmen. Turkmen. And his picture was everywhere; it was that kind of dictatorship?

Mr. SHEETS: Not only was his picture everywhere, but he renamed entire cities after him. He also renamed one of the months of the year - January - after himself. He erected enormous statues to himself to glorify his rule. So his picture was everywhere, his likeness was everywhere, and his implant was everywhere.

INSKEEP: And his country's energy was everywhere under the ground. What are the implications of his sudden death?

Mr. SHEETS: The implications of his sudden death, I think, are more in terms of who will succeed him, because this is a man who believed so deeply in his own eternity that he didn't bother to pick a successor in the style of Fidel Castro in Cuba or in the situation in North Korea. So we don't know what's going to happen. There's going to be a lot of instability. Whether it's going to be outward instability or it will be political infighting that we can't see, that's up to conjecture. As for the gas exports, I do not happen to believe that much will change. Turkmenistan relies entirely on its revenues from gas exports. I do not believe that Turkmenistan is going to stop pumping gas, because it needs the money.

INSKEEP: You think there are some Western oil companies that might be hoping for a ruler that is a little bit easier to deal with?

Mr. SHEETS: That could be the case, but this is a very isolated country. I think Russia has a much bigger foothold in Turkmenistan than the United States does. The United States never courted Turkmenistan to the extent that it courted Uzbekistan and Tajikistan during the early stages of the war in Afghanistan. So although of course there will be interest, I don't think you're going to see some sort of huge power struggle between Russia and the United States over resources in Turkmenistan.

INSKEEP: Okay. Lawrence, good to talk with you again.

Mr. SHEETS: Great to talk to you, sir.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Lawrence Sheets - or former NPR correspondent Lawrence Sheets telling us about the death of Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan.

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