The president who rid his nation of polls

Ashgabat - Turkmenistan's leader Saparmurat Niyazov, who died on Thursday, was absolute ruler of his Central Asian desert state for more than 20 years, enjoying a unique personality cult.

Niyazov, 66, whose country has the world's fifth-biggest reserves of natural gas, was an ex-Soviet apparatchik who got rid of elections and declared himself president-for-life, calling himself "Turkmenbashi" or Head of the Turkmen.

He renamed the month of January after himself and April after his mother and banned ballet, gold teeth and recorded music. A planet of the Taurus constellation, a crater on the Moon and a mountain peak were other things named after him.

Streets, farms, a breed of horse, the longest canal in the world, a city, ships and children were also named in his honour. His chubby face and Elvis-style back-combed dyed black hair also adorn bottles of vodka and cognac and brands of tea and food.

Niyazov's portraits beam benignly from the walls of official offices and from the front of the cabin walls on Turkmen Airlines' elderly aircraft. His slogans are everywhere.

In Turkmenistan's gleaming capital Ashgabat, which rises from the sand like a mini-Dubai, a revolving statue of Niyazov coated in gold leaf rotates to face the sun. Much of the capital in the republic bordering Iran is a monument to his reign.

Like the khans who once ruled this long-nomadic land, Niyazov ran Turkmenistan from an office draped with carpets that made it look like a nomad's tent. When foreign leaders met him he often presented them with a horse.

"In the past when we were ruled by khans, they were never changed. They ruled until they died," Kurban Agaliev, a politburo member of the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan - the only legal party - once said of his rule.

Niyazov was born on February 19, 1940, into a poor workers' family. His father was killed in World War Two. He lost the remaining members of his family in the catastrophic 1948 Ashgabat earthquake and grew up in an orphanage.

He followed a career in engineering and at a cement works before becoming Communist Party boss in Turkmenistan in 1985 as the choice of then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

When the Soviet system crumbled, Niyazov held onto power.

The Soviet Union had rewarded Turkmenistan meagrely for an annual gas production of about 80 billion cubic metres. But after independence, all revenues from gas sales cascaded directly into Turkmen coffers.

Niyazov had a passion for jewellery, wearing large rings on his fingers and tie clips decorated with gems.

But most of Turkmenistan's five million citizens live in poverty and life expectancy among women is the lowest in the former Soviet Union.

Niyazov dispensed money with sweeping gestures, but his extravagant generosity did not extend to the political opposition. Dissidents were detained under his rule, which came in for heavy criticism from human rights groups.

"It's the most repressive country I've ever been to," British conservative European parliamentarian Martin Callanan told European Union observers earlier this year after a trip to Turkmenistan. "Human rights standards don't exist."

Niyazov was recently ranked No 3 on a list of the world's top five dictators by Britain's New Statesman magazine, just two steps down from North Korea's Kim Jong-il.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Turkmenistan the third most censored country in the world, after North Korea and Myanmar.

The government said Niyazov died of cardiac arrest on Thursday. His funeral was set for December 24 and he was likely to be buried in his home town of Kipchak near Ashgabat alongside his mother.


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