Our Next Big Mess 

Turkmenbashi's death could lead to another war

NEW YORK--Chances are that you heard more about Rosie O'Donnell's flame war with Donald Trump than the passing of Sapamurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov. As seems to occur with increasing frequency, America's media ignored the most important story of the year.

A handful of news outlets that bothered to cover the 66-year-old dictator's death wallowed in the humor inherent in the extravagant personality cult he built up after Turkmenistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Cannier obituary writers noted that the Central Asian nation "contains many of the world's largest natural gas fields, and provides gas to Russian and European countries." (Actually, the largest. Period.) But they missed the main point of the story, one with dramatic short-term consequences for Central Asia and breathtaking dangers to the United States during the first half of the new century.

The Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and--until now--Turkmenistan are all being ruled by the same former Communist Party bosses who ran them in Soviet times. Niyazov's death marks the beginning of the end for the post-Soviet authoritarian order and the beginning of a period of increasing instability, as foreign powers attempt to monopolize access to oil and natural gas resources and pipeline routes. Kazakhstan alone may possess more untapped oil reserves than Saudi Arabia and Iraq combined, and the politics and economies of the Central Asian republics are closely intertwined. What is at stake is nothing less than the security and control of the world economy.

Unless you were one of the 5 million desperately poor Turkmen forced to watch while your desert nation's gas wealth was systemically looted and squandered on such vanity projects as the gilt statue of Turkmenbashi that dominates the skyline of Ashkhabat and turns to face the sun (local wags say the sun turns to face it), it was easy to laugh at the ubiquitous trappings of unhinged egotism. Turkmenbashi's moon-eyed mug glared from banners hung from the façade of every government ministry and school, appeared on every denomination of currency, even on his own brands of vodka and cologne. Everything was named after him: the country's second-largest city, its airports, a large meteorite, the month of January. His not-so-little green book of aphorisms ("Time is a mace. Hit or be hit!"), the Rukhnama, became required reading for schoolchildren and motorists who sought to renew their driver's licenses.

Saddam Hussein's reputation for self-indulgence had nothing on Turkmenbashi. Niyazov's megalomania ranged from the grandiose--at the time of his death he had just completed the world's largest mosque (featuring quotes from the Rukhnama, naturally) and had ordered the construction of a man-made lake in the middle of the Karakum desert--to obsessive micromanagement. Each Turkmen student's college application was personally considered by the great man.

Even his commonsense dictates came with a bizarre twist. During the 1990s, Turkmenbashi ordered that natural gas, as a national patrimony, be supplied to Turkmen homes for free. Since most people were too poor to afford matches, however, it became common practice to leave their stoves on 24-7. Where foreigners saw hilarity, Turkmen seethed with resentment; Ashkhabati motorists saved their household garbage so they could chuck it on the lawn of one of Niyazov's pink pleasure palaces.

A power struggle is underway. Within hours of Turkmenbashi's fatal heart attack, his constitutionally mandated successor, Majlis (lower house of parliament) chairman Ovezgeldy Atayev found himself behind bars, arrested for an unspecified "criminal investigation." An obscure deputy prime minister and former dentist, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, declared himself acting president and has arranged to have the Constitution retrofit to validate his rule. "Many Western analysts," reported The New York Times, "said the country was unlikely to change and that authoritarian rule would continue under any of Mr. Niyazov's successors." But Turkmen exiles who lead opposition parties are itching to fill the vacuum, if not of power, of charisma, left by Niyazov's demise. Leaders of the nation's five biggest tribes are jockeying for advantage. And 5 million Turkmen who can't afford matches want a piece of the action--and want to get even with the government thugs who shut down the country's hospitals and medical clinics.

Berdymukhammedov's regime may keep the lid on the pressure cooker of Turkmen politics for a short time, but it isn't hard to imagine a country of former (and present) nomads disintegrating into the chaos of warlordism as a result of the venting of long-suppressed ethnic and political rivalries. A Turkmen civil war would quickly turn regional. Iran and Afghanistan, which share Turkmenistan's southern border, would side with any faction that could guarantee continued trade, but any instability would affect the refining of crude from Kazakhstan, a major world supplier. It would probably end construction of the post-9/11 Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline being built to carry Kazakh oil and Turkmen gas between Turkmenistan and a Pakistani port on the Indian Ocean. Everyone is betting that Turkmenbashi's foreign policy of "positive neutrality" won't last long. Russia has already indicated its intent to reassert itself in Turkmenistan. Here's where we come in: no American president, Democrat or Republican, will allow Russia to gain control over the world's largest energy reserves without a fight. Moreover, neither Russia nor the U.S. will watch idly as Central Asia implodes and takes the world economy along for the ride. U.S. troops, currently based in Uzbekistan, could be sent in to restore order and keep the Russians out.

Signaling renewed high-level interest in Turkmenistan, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov both attended Turkmenbashi's funeral on Christmas Eve. Uzbekistan's universally reviled despot Islam Karimov, who got away with the 2005 massacre of at least 700 civilians at Andijon because of his country's energy reserves, will almost certainly be an early casualty of civil strife in Central Asia. A witch's brew of Stalin-era ethnic gerrymandering and brutal suppression of a nascent Islamistinsurgency, mixed with the collapse of Karimov's Uzbek police state, could easily take Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan--poor countries barely recovering from civil conflict and dependant on the urban-based Uzbek economy--with them. Even Kazakhstan, the most stable of a fragile lot, is susceptible to an uprising; few Kazakhs have shared in the nation's oil boom.

Whether Turkmenbashi's death directly affects its neighbors, it's a reminder that Central Asia's autocrats aren't getting younger. Laugh about the Leader of All Turkmen's excesses now. The storm is coming.

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