ASHGABAT - Turkmenistan's President-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov died suddenly on Thursday after 21 years of iron rule, raising a risk of political instability in the energy-rich country that some feared could have an impact on Europe's gas supplies.
Niyazov, 66, who crushed all dissent in his reclusive state and basked in a unique and bizarre personality cult while ruling a country with huge natural gas reserves, died overnight of cardiac arrest, state television said.
His funeral was set for December 24 and the government fixed December 26 for the desert state's highest representative body to meet to decide on the succession and name a date for elections.
Turkmenistan has never held an election judged to be free and fair by foreign monitors. Until the new polls, which have to be held within two months, Deputy Prime Minister Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, 49, will be acting head of state.
But Niyazov, who held all top posts, left no designated heir and his sudden death raised concerns about the transfer of power in the ex-Soviet nation of 5 million, where foreign oil and gas companies are keen to invest in vast energy reserves.
Though isolated by Niyazov's policies, Turkmenistan is a vital link in the supply chain between former Soviet gas fields and European Union consumers since it meets the demands of the huge Ukrainian market, freeing up Russian gas for Europe.
Some analysts saw prospects of a power struggle that could thrust Turkmenistan into a period of political uncertainty.
"I expect there will be a massive fight for power now in Turkmenistan and it's likely to take place between pro-US and pro-Russian forces," said a Russian gas industry source, who declined to be named. "Gas will become the main coin of exchange and the key asset to get hold of."
But others doubted any successor to Niyazov would want to put at risk vital gas contracts with the outside world.
Flags flew at half-mast from public buildings in Ashgabat, a Soviet city grandly reconstructed to showcase Niyazov's power.
In a statement the US embassy there said the United States hoped "for a peaceful, smooth, constitutional succession."
Originally a Soviet apparatchik, Niyazov took the title of "Turkmenbashi (Head of the Turkmen) the Great" and had thousands of portraits and statues of him set up throughout the country.
They include a statue in gold leaf that rotates to face the sun in Ashgabat. He renamed the month of January after himself and his name was also given to a sea port and even a meteorite.
Niyazov's heath was always at the centre of speculation among Turkmenistan-watchers and foreign investors. After heart surgery in 1997, he quit smoking and ordered all his ministers to follow suit. He had publicly admitted to heart problems.
On Thursday, workers removed all New Year decorations from the streets and television ran still images of a national flag in a black-bordered frame as an orchestra played solemn tunes.
The public mood appeared calm but, given Niyazov's long, unchallenged rule, some expressed concerns for the future.
The government suggested Niyazov's tough and isolationist policies would be maintained.
"The internal and external policies proclaimed earlier will be continued further," said the statement read on state television. "The nation must stay united and unshaken," it said.