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    Ex-Soviet states fear C.Asian instability following Niyazov death

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    Commentators and politicians in post-Soviet nations voiced their concerns Thursday that the death of Turkmenistan's long-serving authoritarian president early in the day could trigger instability in the Central Asian region.

    ASHGABAT, December 21 (RIA Novosti) - Commentators and politicians in post-Soviet nations voiced their concerns Thursday that the death of Turkmenistan's long-serving authoritarian president early in the day could trigger instability in the Central Asian region.

    During his 21-year rule, President-for-Life Saparmurat Niyazov, known for the bizarre personality cult he created, stifled political and religious dissent, and ordered massive arrests and trials to punish his political opponents, blamed for an alleged plot to assassinate him in 2002.

    Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Moscow-based think tank Politika, said: "His death means a terrible shock for the republic, its public and polity. It is comparable to the shock experienced by the Soviet Union over [Joseph] Stalin's death."

    Ironically, December 21 is also Stalin's birthday.

    Vladimir Zhirinovsky, vice speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament, likened Niyazov to the Soviet dictator, and said that in the wake of his death, the country could find itself torn apart by rival clans.

    "It will be all calm and quiet up to the funeral, but then a fierce battle will break out between the republic's clans seeking to redistribute wealth."

    Zhirinovsky said Iranian and American interests would clash over Turkmenistan, seen by the U.S. as an area of high strategic importance, providing direct access to the Caspian Sea's vast oil reserves and to Afghanistan, where Washington is pursuing a counter-terrorism campaign. He suggested that both Tehran and Washington may even try to influence the choice of Turkmenistan's next leader.

    Exploration of Caspian oil wealth is hindered by the sea's unresolved status, with the border delineation talks between the five Caspian countries - Turkmenistan, Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan - deadlocked over Tehran's opposition to the idea of dividing the sea based on shoreline. Turkmenistan leans toward Iran's stance that each of the states should receive an equal share of the seabed.

    In Ukraine, which is also dependent on Turkmen natural gas, politicians have expressed hope the status quo will be preserved. MP Yevheniy Kushnarev, a deputy leader of the Ukrainian parliament's governing faction, the Party of Regions, said: "I hope there will be no abrupt changes in Turkmenistan's political course."

    His comments reflected Russia's stance.

    Moscow, which has resisted radical changes of power in post-Soviet nations, said earlier it hopes power in Turkmenistan will be transferred in accordance with the law following the death of President Niyazov.

    "We hope for a legal transfer of power and that continuity will be preserved in our relations," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

    Analysts in Azerbaijan also believe Niyazov's death may have negative implications for stability in Turkmenistan and the surrounding region.

    "We are interested in having a stable neighbor," political scientist Ilgar Mamedov said. "Of course, we would prefer a Turkmenistan where human rights and freedoms are respected, but, in any case, a sustainable, manageable Turkmenistan is what Azerbaijan needs."

    Amnesty International has cited widespread human rights violations in Turkmenistan under Niyazov, including arbitrary detention, torture, and political repression. Human Rights Watch has called the ex-Soviet republic "one of the most repressive and closed countries in the world."

    "Turkmenistan is in an almost total isolation now," analyst-cum-journalist Zardusht Alizade said in summing up Turkmenistan's foreign policy.

    "Turkmenbashi [the head of all Turkmen, as Niyazov styled himself] managed to protect himself against risks by declaring his country neutral and annihilating all opposition. He was giving gas to Russia for a song. And he tried to establish relations with the West, but to no avail. He tried to lay a gas pipeline via Azerbaijan to avoid Russia, but Azerbaijan, acting on Moscow's orders, did not allow that. It tried to link itself to Iran so as to be able to lay a pipeline through its territory, but America did not let it proceed."

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