Turkmenistan turns a corner

Turkmenistan's new President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

Turkmenistan's new President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.   | Photo Credit: PHOTO: AFP

Vladimir Radyuhin

The February 11 presidential election, contested by six candidates, is seen as a big step forward.

ON FEBRUARY 11, Turkmenistan held a historic presidential election that is expected to set the impoverished, but gas-rich Central Asian country of five million on the path of slow reforms.

Authorities said more than 98 per cent of registered voters cast ballots to elect a replacement for Saparmurat Niyazov, who ruled the country for 21 years. It was the first time in more than 15 years that the people went to the polls to elect their leader. It was also the first time they were able to choose from more than one candidate.

The election results were announced only on Tuesday, but the name of the winner had been known since the day the Supreme Council met after Niyazov's death of a heart attack on December 21 to approve the appointment of Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, 49, as acting President and nominate him as one of six presidential candidates.

However, the February 11 poll contested by six candidates was a big step forward for Turkmenistan after Niyazov's rule, variously described as dictatorship, tyranny, and sultanate. The last time Niyazov sought popular mandate to govern his country was in 1991, after the break-up of the Soviet Union. In 1999, the Mejlis, Turkmenistan's supreme legislative body, extended Niyazov's term indefinitely, and in 2002 it declared him President-for-Life.

Niyazov was the only source of power in Turkmenistan. He held the posts of Prime Minister, the head of both legislative bodies the 50-member Mejlis and the 2,500-member People's Council and was the leader of the country's only legal political party, the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. He was officially referred to as Turkmenbashi or the Father of All Turkmen, and the country is dotted with hundreds of his golden statues, including a 75-metre one in the capital Ashgabat that rotates with the sun.

The very fact that the new Turkmen leadership deemed it necessary to hold a multi-candidate election was a significant step. So was the fact that all the six candidates had conducted election campaigns, held public meetings, vowed to raise the people's well-being, improve education, and reform the health system.

Mr. Berdymukhammedov, a dentist by profession and Niyazov's personal doctor, has vowed to steer Turkmenistan along the course charted by Turkmenbashi. At the same time, his election promises amount to the dismantling of Niyazov's more odious "reforms" curtailed school and university education, rolling back of rural health services, cutting off of pensions for tens of thousands of retirees, and severe foreign travel restrictions. He has also promised a gradual evolution towards a multiparty system, growth of private business, and relaxed controls on Internet access.

For the first time, Turkmenistan invited foreign observers from the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), even if their presence was largely symbolic.

"The country has embarked on the path of gradual liberalisation and transition from a monocratic to an oligarchic regime," says Shokhrat Kadyrov, a Central Asia scholar. "Turkmenistan is reverting to an evolutionary model and is rejecting Niyazov's concept of an `indigenous Turkmen third road.'"

The evolution of the regime will have to be slow, as the new leadership will want to keep a tight grip on the country to avoid destabilisation from numerous threats that were suppressed but not dealt with under Niyazov.

Poor standard of living

Even though Turkmenistan is the fifth richest nation in the world in terms of natural gas reserves, living standards are the lowest in the region, unemployment runs at 50-70 per cent, and between one-third and one-half of the population under 30 years old are drug addicts as the country in recent years became a major heroin traffic conduit from neighbouring Afghanistan and Iran. There is also the danger that terrorist networks operating in Central Asia may take advantage of relaxation of the political regime to gain a foothold in Turkmenistan, which is squeezed by Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.

Russia, which buys practically all of Turkmenistan's natural gas, has a vital stake in a stable Turkmenistan. However, much will depend on whether the other big players in the region the European Union, the United States, China, and Iran refrain from any steps that may destabilise Turkmenistan as they vie for a piece of its energy pie.

The change of regime in Turkmenistan offers a good opportunity for India to reinvigorate its ties with the Central Asian state and gain access to its gas riches, possibly in collaboration with Russian companies.

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