- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 24, 2006

KIPCHAK, Turkmenistan — President Saparmurat Niyazov was buried yesterday near a golden-capped mosque that he built and named for himself in this impoverished Central Asian nation, an elaborate funeral marking the last grand gesture for a man who devoted much of his two decades in power to his own glorification.

The mourning ceremonies started with a long line of Turkmen mixed with foreign dignitaries streaming solemnly past the body of the man who styled himself as Turkmenbashi, or Father of all Turkmen, as he lay in state in the spectacular marble rotunda of the presidential palace.

“He was everything to us,” one woman wept, refusing to give her name.

At 66, the president-for-life outlived his country’s average life expectancy by five years, but he left no successor.

For the 21 years that he controlled this vast nation and its considerable oil and gas wealth, Mr. Niyazov dominated his countrymen’s minds as much as he restricted their actions.

His smiling, black-haired visage peers down upon his 5 million subjects from every town, his book of musings is daily required reading for every schoolchild, and studying it is said to be a direct ticket to heaven.

The secretive acting government has issued only periodic announcements in the days following Mr. Niyazov’s death.

But all have been variations on the same theme: Any successor will “stand guard on the achievements founded by Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great … and vigilantly preserve the calm and happy life of our people and support stable conditions within the country,” as Security Minister Lt. Gen. Geldimukhammed Ashirmukhammedov vowed in a statement printed in Turkmen official newspapers Saturday.

Ordinary Turkmen have publicly expressed nothing but undying love and admiration for their deceased leader, and many cried as they filed past Mr. Niyazov’s body as it lay in the palace in Ashgabat, the capital.

Reporters could talk to locals only surreptitiously, and high-ranking government officials were generally inaccessible even to most of the delegations that attended the funeral, a sign that an era of free expression is not imminent in this insular country with no independent press and only one political party.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, the senior member of the U.S. delegation, said he hoped the new Turkmen government would respect its people’s freedoms.

“We are certainly hoping for a peaceful and stable transition, a transition to a government that will try to provide justice, democracy that the people of Turkmenistan deserve,” he told journalists in Ashgabat after the funeral.

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