This blog addresses the political developments taking place immediately following the death of Saparmurat Niyazov: by whom and under what circumstances was his successor selected, and how did Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov manage to consolidate power after assuming his duties?
In 2006, Niyazov passed away unexpectedly. Since he designated no potential successor, the regime faced a possible power vacuum and inter-elite conflict, which some of the most influential elite members managed to avoid by reaching a quick consensus on the candidacy of his successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. The Head of the Presidential Guard, Akmurat Rejepov, together with the Minister of Interior, Akmammet Rakhmanov, and several other key figures agreed to back the candidacy of the Vice Prime Minister Berdymukhamedov. The choice of Berdymukhamedov by the ‘siloviki’ was determined by several factors. He was from the largest Ahalteke tribe, he was young and potentially popular with the wider public and, most importantly, he had good relations with the most influential members of the political elite, Akmurat Rejepov and the Minister of Defence Agageldi Mammetgeldiyev (Horak 2010:38). Apparently, Berdymukhamedov was seen as a figure who would not pose serious challenges to the influential members of the previous administration.
However, as later developments illustrated, Berdymukhamedov was not going to play the role of the puppet. Immediately after taking up office, Berdymukhamedov began consolidating his power. This process was based on two main components: 1. getting rid of influential elite members who might have challenged his positions and 2. replacing Niyazov’s cult of personality with his own.
Berdymukhamedov began by neutralizing all potential political rivals and building his own support base. The first to be removed from their positions were Rakhmanov and Rejepov in the spring of 2007. Rejepov was one of the most influential figures under the rule of Niyazov, and in many saw his dismissal by the new President as a bold move. Certainly, by neutralizing Rejepov, Berdymukhamedov ensured that this would not act as an alternative power centre during his presidency.
After Rakhmanov and Rejepov, many other influential and potentially challenging figures were gradually dismissed by 2009. These were the Minister of National Security Geldimuhammet Asyrmuhammedov, together with several other top officials (October 2008), the Prosecutor General Muhammetguly Ogsukov (March 2008), the commander-in-chief of the Border Guard Bayram Alolov, the Minister of Defence and Secretary of the State Security Council Agageldi Mammetgeldiyev (January 2009), and hundreds of other high-ranking officials. The main targets of the dismissals were high officials working in the national security and energy sectors (Peyrouse 2012:110–112). Berdymukhamedov started replacing them with his relatives and associates, establishing his own loyal network.
While getting rid of influential and potentially dangerous figures of the previous administration, Berdymukhamedov started replacing his predecessor’s cult of personality. During his presidency, Niyazov was in the centre of the state propaganda, dominating the public space. The media started referring to him as Milli Leader (National Leader) and great patron. He gave himself the title of ‘Turkmenbashi’ – father of Turkmens. Golden statue and busts representing Berdymukhamedov started replacing those of Niyazov all over the state. His portraits and photos were present all over the public places and offices. Niyazov extended his personality cult to the members of his family as well. The first President authored many books, the most significant of which was Ruhnama, which was included in the school and university curricula. Since his death, Ruhnama was gradually replaced in the national curricula by books that are claimed to be written by Berdymukhamedov (Peyrouse 2010:49).
To conclude, when obtaining office Berdymukhamedov faced several challenges. On the one hand, since his nomination followed the decisions of several highly influential security officials, he risked being placed under their influence. On the other hand, Niyazov was so overrepresented in the state propaganda that Berdymukhamedov risked living in his shadow. During the fragile period of transition, Berdymukhamedov consolidating his power by neutralizing all key potential political opponents and replacing Niyazov’s personality cult with his own.
Horak, S 2010, ‘Changes in the Political Elite in Post-Soviet Turkmenistan’, China and Eurasia Quarterly, Vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 27–46 [26 February 2018].
Peyrouse, S 2010, ‘Berdymukhammedov’s Turkmenistan. A Modest Shift in Domestic and Social Politics’, China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 47-65 [26 February 2018].
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