Turkmenistan sets date for presidential elections

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The Independent Online

A date was set yesterday for elections to replace Saparmurat Niyazov, the dictator of Turkmenistan, who died on Thursday.

Mr Niyazov, who died from heart failure, aged 66, created a North Korean-style personality cult, building a gold leaf-covered statue of himself which rotates towards the sun, and banning opera and ballet.

With no successor nominated, the country of five million people has been left in a political vacuum. Because of its huge energy reserves, Turkmenistan is of crucial importance as a gas supplier, in particular to Russia. Analysts worry that the death of Mr Niyazov could provoke instability in a volatile region.

The acting president, Gurbungali Berdymukhamedov, promised the elections next Tuesday would be democratic, though such an outcome would be a huge departure for the authoritarian state, created after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Turkmenistan has never held elections judged to be free and fair by foreign observers. Presidential candidates will be nominated and there is no guarantee that the result of any poll will be honoured.

The decree proclaiming the elections may not have encouraged democrats. It said that the presidential poll will be held on the democratic basis "that has been laid by the great leader".

The EU has called for the restoration of democracy in Turkmenistan but did not offer condolences - unlike the US which had sought to cultivate Turkmenistan as an ally in its war on terror.

Across Turkmenistan, restaurants and cafés were closed, weddings were postponed and the state-controlled newspapers were dominated by tributes.

Meanwhile, soldiers and police stepped up their presence on the streets, and Mr Berdymukhamedov urged officials to ensure sufficient food supplies. Human Rights Watch urged Mr Niyazov's successor to make it a priority to turn around the country's disastrous human rights record, and order the immediate release of political prisoners.

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