Central Asia’s Other Turkmenbashis

A dictator’s sudden death almost always triggers political instability. But it is doubly dangerous when it poses a risk of region-wide destabilization and a scramble for influence among the world’s greatest military powers – the United States, Russia, and China.

The sudden death in late December of Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s authoritarian president-for-life who declared himself “Turkmenbashi” (Leader of all Turkmens), jeopardizes stability in a country that is an increasingly important supplier of energy to Europe. Worse, given the absence of a clearly designated successor and the weakness of civil society and other political institutions, his death could have repercussions across Central Asia.

Indeed, Niyazov’s demise highlights the broader problems of Central Asia’s post-Soviet regimes, which, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, are run by Soviet-era bosses who, while not nearly as eccentric or egomaniacal as Niyazov, tolerate little dissent or opposition. Most of them are old, some of them are unwell. So, in the next few years, Central Asia will face leadership change on many fronts, with security apparatuses – which, as in Turkmenistan, have been crucial to buttressing these countries’ regimes – likely to be important players.

How these transitions turn out will matter for several reasons. First, Central Asia is an important source of energy. The Caspian region accounts for 2% to 3% of the world’s known oil resources – about equal to that of North Sea oil. While far smaller than the deposits in Saudi Arabia or Iran, Caspian oil could prove important if oil production falls or is reduced for political reasons elsewhere.