Niyazov, who called himself “Turkmenbashi” (“Father of the Turkmen”), started out as a communist leader, but translated seamlessly to nationalist autocrat after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His eccentricities included naming cities, months, and even a meteorite after himself, building a giant gold statue of himself that rotates to catch the sunlight, and planning construction of a giant ice palace in his capital (for those hazy about central Asian geography, Turkmenistan is mostly desert).
Niyazov’s authoritarianism did not extend to large-scale massacres, and unlike, say, North Korea, Turkmenistan was wealthy enough in natural resources (notably gas) to avoid mass starvation. But human rights were virtually non-existent and any political dissent was ruthlessly suppressed.
The future for the country is unclear; Niyazov had avoided naming any successor, although deputy prime minister Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is said to be the favourite. But the unexpected death of a dictator is often the best chance countries have for recovering some measure of freedom or democracy.
Meanwhile, Cuba is also grappling with succession issues: Raul Castro, acting president since August, has started talking about his own leadership style in a way that suggests his brother Fidel is not expected to return to power.
Raul told a student gathering that “Fidel is irreplaceable and I don’t intend to imitate him. Those who imitate fail”. He also said “like it or not, we are finishing the fulfilment of our duty and we have to give way to new generations”.
Raul Castro confirmed recent opinion that he would move towards liberalisation, calling for greater debate on policy and, as Reuters put it, “delegating more responsibilities and making fewer speeches than his famously verbose brother”. But since Raul is 75, only five years younger than Fidel, any transition to democracy in Cuba will probably be out of his hands as well.