Today a brutal dictator died of a heart attack. No, it wasn't Fidel Castro; it was someone far worse: Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan. As I prepare my annual article for Parade magazine on the "The World's 10 Worst Dictators," I have to admit that Niyazov (#8) is the one I am most sorry to see go. It's not that he was less awful than the others, it's that he was the most bizarre--even more bizarre than Kim Jong-il.
Here is a man who renamed the month of January after himself and April after his mother, banned lip-synching, car radios, ballet, opera and the playing of recorded music at weddings, and shut down all national parks, rural libraries and the Academy of Science. His face appears on all of Turkmenistan's bank notes and on all television broadcasts at all times. He also had his own lines of cologne, tea and vodka (with his picture on each bottle and box, naturally). Niyazov, who called himself "Turkmenbashi" ("Father of the Turkmen"), ordered doctors to stop taking the Hippocratic Oath and swear allegiance to him instead. He wrote a book, Rukhnama, that is required reading at every level of the educational system. Government employees had to memorize excerpts of Rukhnama verbatim or risk losing their jobs. On March 20, 2006, Niyazov announced on national television that "Anyone who reads the Rukhnama three times will find spiritual wealth, will become more intelligent, will recognize the divine being and will go straight to Heaven."
Turkmenistan is rich in natural gas, and it is located in a volatile region, with borders on both Iran and Afghanistan. What happens next in the country will be more than just an odd story. Niyazov made no serious plans for an orderly succession. In October 2005, he announced that he would "grow a worthy successor" over the next four or five years. But, in fact, he purged anyone who showed signs of such growth.
In 2002, Niyazov officially decreed the division of the ages of man. According to him, they are:
49-61 The Age of the Prophet
61-73 The Age of Inspiration
73-85 The Age of the White-Bearded Elder
85-97 Old Age
97-109 The Age of Oguz Khan (an ancient ruler)
Niyazov never made it to The Age of the White-Bearded Elder; he died at 66.