Saparmurat Niyazov was the president of Turkmenistan from 1990 until his death in 2006. It was under his leadership that Turkmenistan declared its freedom from the former Soviet Union.
Niyazov was born in 1940. He was orphaned at a young age after his father died fighting in World War II and the rest of his family was killed during a 1948 earthquake. Raised in a Soviet orphanage and later living with distant relatives, he gained a strong appreciation for family. He rose through the ranks of the Communist party before declaring himself Turkmenbashi or leader of all Turkmen.
Niyazov is certainly an interesting figure. There is no escaping his influence in Turkmenistan. He has named cities, schools, airports, days of the week, months of the year, and even a meteorite after himself! He has also renamed members of his family and figures in Turkmenistan history that he considers important. The year 2003 was dedicated to his mother.
The capital, which is the city of his birth, boasts a 12-meter high gold statue that follows the path of the sun. After he quit smoking, he outlawed smoking in public places. He also declared beards and long hair on men illegal. Niyazov has ordered that an ice palace be built to celebrate his rule despite the fact that Turkmenistan is a desert country.
His book, Rukhnama, is required reading for everyone in Turkmenistan. It is an autobiographical work that also explains Turkmenistan's history and provides spiritual guidance. It is the primary textbook used in schools and seems to have the purpose of teaching every schoolchild to admire and support the Turkmenbashi. Niyazov is also a poet, and can be found reading his poems on national television.
Not all of the Turkmenbashi's rulings are controversial. One of his first actions after being elected was to declare water, gas and electricity free to all Turkmenistan citizens. He also focuses on the importance of celebrating Turkmenistani culture now that it is no longer overshadowed by Soviet influence.
In 1999, Niyazov was declared President for Life by the national legislature, a status that was reinforced in 2002. Niyazov has said in the past that he will step down for elections in 2008 or 2010. However, some suspect that a 2002 assassination attempt was really staged by the president as an excuse to get rid of opposition forces within the country and cement his leadership.
21 December 2006 Update: Niyazov has died from a heart attack.