Like the majority of the Central Asian republics, Turkmenistan experienced a troubled and difficult transition process after gaining independence.
In the aftermath of the USSR’ s implosion, the communist-inspired oligarchies became democratic overnight. This led to the establishment of despotic and nepotist regimes commonly known as ‘sultanistic regimes’. As far as Turkmenistan is concerned, the process that led to its independence was rather atypical. In1991, Gorbachev made a final effort to avert the inescapable demise of the Soviet Union. On 17 March 1991, a referendum on the preservation of USSR was held. In Turkmenistan 95,7% of voters were in favour of the preservation of USSR, therefore confirming the intention of Turkmenistan to remain a Soviet Republic within the USSR, but only seven months later on 27 October, in a national referendum the same number of voters called for Turkmenistan to leave the Soviet Union.
The process of transition, however, unfolded peacefully, also due to the small political relevance of nationalist movements, such as the Agzybrlik, in the country.
The transition to the new system was run by the communist nomenclature which had ruled the country until then. Niyazov was First Secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party from 1985 until 1991, and continued to lead Turkmenistan for 15 years after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The Turkmen presidential election of 1992 saw Niyazov – the sole candidate – chosen as the country’s first popularly elected president with a stunning 99,5% of the vote . A year later he declared himself Türkmenbaşy – “Leader of all Turkmen”. During the course of Niyazov’s rule, his primary interest proved to be propagating an elaborate personality cult. In addition to declaring himself president for life, Niyazov pursued a number of extravagant projects in order to turn Turkmenistan into a sort of Central Asian Las Vegas. He ordered the construction of a palace made of ice in the heart of his desert country, one of the hottest on earth.
The Ice Palace complex that stands in the mountains just outside the capital Ashagbat includes a vast aquarium with tropical fish. Niyazov also ordered that a12 metre-high gold statue in his likeness standing in the middle of the Karakum desert be built. His semi-autobiographical Rukhnama (“The Book of the Soul”) was established as required reading in all of Turkmenistan’s schools, even forming a part of driver’s exams. He renamed days of the week and months of the year after himself, or his mother, whom he was particularly attached to. His portrait was on every banknote, coin, postage stamp, and cigarette box. He also declared his birthday a public holiday. The regime of Niyazov was one of the worst examples of sultanistic regime.
Turkmenistan’ s economy, under his rule, mainly relied on the export of natural gas that generated up to 85 percent of Turkmenistan’s annual revenue. The revenues were also used to finance both the clientelistic structure of the establishment and the security apparatus. At the time, Turkmen gas was mainly purchased by Russia. The two countries are still tied by common interests regarding some old gas pipelines dating back to the old Soviet era, and that are still reason of interest to the energy policy of Moscow. (F.R.)