Just over a decade ago, Turkmen state media reported an attempt on the life of President Saparmurmat Niyazov, better known to the world as Turkmenbashi, or the Father of the Turkmen. Despite the fact that Niyazov survived the attempt, dying four years later, it remains a talking point in a country where media remains tightly controlled and rumours provide one of the few sources of alternative information.
Widely considered a colourless bureaucrat at the time he swore his presidential oath in 1991, one of Niyazov's most lauded achievements remains the construction of a rotating gold statue of himself in the country's white marble capital of Ashgabat. In 2004 he famously told Turkmen citizens to chew on bones in order to strengthen their teeth. The man that succeeded him following his death in 2006, Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, is a former dentist.
‘Suddenly he was gone…’
The eventual death of the tyrant in December 2006 evoked mixed reactions. Central Asian blogger Bektour recalled [ru] a phone call he made to a Turkmen friend:
Ничто не вечно. Позабавил сегодня телефонный разговор с одной знакомой туркменкой, которая живёт в Бишкеке. Имени, по понятным причинам, называть не буду.
– Алло, привет. Ты сегодня телевизор уже смотрела?
- Нет, а что случилось?
- Гм… Уважаемый Сапармурат Атаевич-то коньки отбросил…
- Ниязов, говорю, умер!
- [Возгласы восхищения на том конце.] Спасибо за эту новость!
Nothing is eternal. I had an interesting conversation today with a Turkmen friend of mine who now lives in Bishkek. I am not giving name her due to obvious reasons.
- Hello. Have you watched TV today?
- No. What's happened?
- They are saying that respectable Saparmurat [Niyazov] has finally kicked the bucket…
- I am saying Niyazov is dead!
- [Happy emotions]. Thank you for the news!
However, readers of Bektour’s blog remembered different feelings. Nazik commented [ru]:
Бектур, прочитала ваш пост и хотела бы заметить, что вы описываете реакцию только одного человека… Когда мы узнали о том, что Ниязов умер, стало страшно. Страшно за наше будущее… Умер человек, которого мое поколение называло дедушкой. По дороге в детский сад мы махали рукой проезжающему мимо картежу, и он выглядывал и махал нам в ответ. Как-никак, а этот человек был для нас залогом стабильности и процветания, и вдруг его не стало, и никто не знал, что будет дальше…..
Bektour, I read your post and I would like to mention that you are describing the reaction of a single person… When we [Turkmen] learned about Niyazov's death, we were scared. We were scared for our future… My generation called [Niyazov] grandfather. On our way to the kindergartens, we waived as his cortege was passing by, and he would look out the car window and wave back. This person was the guarantor of stability and prosperity in the country, and suddenly he was gone, and nobody knew what was going to happen next…
Even before the news of his death, Turkmenbashi's life had been surrounded by conspiracy theories. Citizens were shocked to hear of an attempt on his life on November 25, 2002.
As Eurasianet reported:
Saparmurat Niyazov, the mercurial president-for-life of resource-rich Turkmenistan, survived an assassination attempt November 25 that left several of the attackers dead and at least one bodyguard seriously wounded. Experts now expect Niyazov to intensify purges of security forces and other government agencies and tighten control over society.
Turkmen authorities blamed the attack on several former officials and diplomats, including the ex-Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov. The assassination attempt had been preceded by a big opposition meeting in Vienna. Therefore many saw the botched hit as a government operation to enable Turkmenbashi to cement control over the country.
Opposition leaders accused of the assassination were publicly condemned and sentenced to life imprisonment. Boris Shihmuradov made a public statement [ru] in which he admitted his guilt and called himself and his supporters “an organized criminal group, gangsters, and nobodies”. Speaking on national TV, Turkmenbashi himself accused [ru] Russia of providing the assailants with arms, alleging also that Moscow was prepared to send ‘two planes with Special Forces troops to drown the people of Turkmenistan in blood’.
Ten years on, the event is still shrouded in mystery. ‘Vasya,’ a commenter on the dissident-run Turkmen Chronicles news blog, writes [ru]:
да все знают, что это была провокация, которую устроил сам туркменбаши-потому что он обкурился анаши.
Everyone knows that this was a provocation staged by Turkmenbashi himself, who was high on drugs at that time.
‘Ruslan T’ notes [ru] that the sentences given to those accused of organizing the assassination attempts exceeded the legal limits at the time when the trials occurred:
…Суть в том, что на момент совершения преступления (если оно было) максимум было 25 лет. Им дали пожизненное…
…The truth is that at the time when the [alleged] crime was committed (if it was committed at all), the maximum punishment [for the type of crime] was 25 years in prison. But they [opposition members] were given life sentences…
Some netizens even allege that the attempt on the ex-president's life might have been organized by the incumbent president. As ‘Eli's Expresso’ claims [ru]:
Это покушение было организовано … Бердымухамедовым. Это он с одной стороны, через подставных лиц, давал ложную информацию оппозиционерам и помог некоторым из них проникнуть в страну, а с другой натравил на них спецслужбы. Таким образом он укрепил свою власть и избавился от конкурентов к власти
This assassination attempts was organized by Berdymuhamedov. It was him who, on one hand, used the middlemen to supply the opposition with false information and helped some of them to enter the country, and, on the other hand, set the state security agencies on them… In doing so, he consolidated his power and got rid of [potential] rivals in the struggle for power.
In Turkmenistan, a state starved of reliable information about most things, even the inconceivable can enter the realm of the possible.