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Crowds turn out to mourn death of Turkmen leader

Passing of ex-Soviet Turkmenistan's Niyazov makes some weep, others worry for future

Crowds turn out to mourn death of Turkmen leader

Crowds of mourners, many of them weeping uncontrollably, filed yesterday past the coffin of ex-Soviet Turkmenistan's leader Sapurmarat Niyazov, who died after 21 years of iron-fisted rule.
The death of the 66-year-old leader of heart attack on Thursday plunged the Central Asian state of 5 million people, whose rich gas reserves are of great interest to Russia, Europe and the United States, into political uncertainty.
From early morning endless streams of mourners moved slowly past the coffin placed in a marble, colonnaded hall at his presidential palace, topped by a gilded dome.
Bearing flowers, they bowed or said final farewells to the former communist apparatchik who portrayed himself as a father figure through a self-obsessed personality cult and was referred to at home as Turkmenbashi or Head of the Turkmen.
Niyazov's body lay in state in the rotunda of the presidential palace. A line of mourners stretched across the vast plaza outside, many of them bearing flowers. Many women wore dark coats set off by the vividly colored, intricately patterned headscarves characteristic of Turkmenistan.
"He was everything to us," said one weeping woman, who refused to give her name. Others in the line of mourners declined to talk to journalists.
After three hours the coffin was closed and loaded on a flower-bedecked trailer and pulled by an armored personnel carrier to Niyazov's home village of Kipchak, about 15 kilometers outside the capital.
Niyazov built Central Asia's largest mosque - named "Spirit of Turkmenbashi" - in Kipchak. Pallbearers carried the coffin wrapped in the national flag into the Niyazov family mausoleum built on the mosque grounds - a structure of gleaming white stone topped by a golden dome.
State TV's live broadcast of the ceremonies was accompanied by constant playing of the national mourning music "Kotch Pelek" (Bitter Fate). The music is also used at annual commemorations for the victims of World War II and of the tens of thousands of Turkmens who died in a 1948 earthquake.
Plainclothed police watched after mourners queued in orderly lines past a tall gilded statue of Niyazov that rotates to face the sun - the city's main landmark.
Looking ahead
Some people in Ashgabat said they feared for the future after the death of Niyazov, who crushed dissent, jailed critics and controlled every aspect of people's lives.
"I am really scared," said Olga, an ethnic Russian in her 50s, who would not give her last name. "The future of Turkmenistan is unclear after President Niyazov's death."
Another woman, refusing to give her first name, said: "I feel like I lost my own father. I don't know how to live now."
Niyazov governed his nation like a personal fiefdom, mixing old communist ways and eccentricities. He scrapped elections and declared himself president-for-life but left no heir apparent.
The West and Russia, likely to vie for influence over the country's future leadership, are watching Turkmenistan closely. Turkmenistan's estimated gas reserves of 2.9 trillion cubic meters or more are the focus of their attention.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov attended the funeral. Russia also dispatched a solid team of gas officials, including Alexei Miller, the head of its gas giant Gazprom.
One foreign oil investor at the funeral, who declined to be named, said: "It is a very uncertain situation. But I think things will become clear within days."
Turkmenistan-watchers expect a power struggle among his entourage. In a first sign of it, security forces led by defense Minister Agageldy Mamedgeldyev have set up a new Security Council and named little known Deputy Prime Minister Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov as acting head of state.
The highest representative body, the Khalq Maslakhaty or People's Council, meets to discuss the succession tomorrow.


Updated : 2021-05-07 22:14 GMT+08:00