Oil-rich Turkmenistan begins 'new era' as president is sworn in

Andrew Osborn
Thursday 15 February 2007 01:00

Power has changed hands for the first time in two decades in the authoritarian energy-rich state of Turkmenistan after a new president was sworn in, raising hopes of a break with the country's reclusive past.

High-level international delegations flocked to see Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, a 49-year-old former dentist, take the presidential oath in the capital, Ashgabat.

The strategic importance of the event was underscored by the presence of Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher as well as senior delegations from Iran and China at the ceremony. Mr Berdymukhamedov may be a complete unknown but his every word was noted.

Turkmenistan is estimated to sit on the world's fifth largest reserves of natural gas and governments are curious to know whether the new president will carry on where his predecessor - the controversial President Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in December - left off.

Mr Berdymukhamedov, who used to tend to the late leader's teeth, sent mixed messages at his colourful inauguration. Though he pledged that his country of five million would begin to open up to the outside world, he kissed a copy of the late leader's work, a two-volume book called the Ruhnama. The book was Niyazov's own version of Mao Tse-tung's Little Red Book.

Mr Berdymukhamedov symbolically held it up to his forehead for a few seconds after kissing its cover. "What the Great Saparmurat Turkmenbashi did to improve social conditions... will be continued," he said, then he promised to dedicate himself to the late leader's legacy.

It is a legacy that human rights groups would prefer the new president left behind. Niyazov, or "The Great Turkmenbashi" as he liked to be known, ruled the former Soviet republic for 21 years fostering a cult of personality around him that saw days of the week and months of the year named after him and some of his relatives.

Before his death of a heart attack in December, his increasingly odd decrees, such as banning long hair, beards and gold teeth, raised laughs around the world. But there was a dark side to his rule that meant that the minutiae of daily life was regimented to a degree that drew parallels with George Orwell's 1984.

He closed libraries and hospitals in large chunks of Turkmenistan on the grounds that "they were not needed"; dumbed down education; and abolished pensions for thousands of elderly people on a whim.

Internet and mobile phone usage was tightly restricted, political opposition was not tolerated, and human rights groups accused him of jailing, torturing and sometimes killing his opponents.

His successor, Mr Berdymukhamedov, was apparently supported by almost 90 per cent of the electorate in a ballot that the handful of international observers present said was neither free nor fair. Mr Berdymukhamedov has been rumoured to be the former leader's illegitimate son.

Human rights groups say that the jury is still out on whether he really spells a break with the past.

"The new leadership does seem to recognise the self-destructive path Niyazov's policies put the country on," said Michael Hall of the International Crisis Group.

"But beginning the post-Niyazov era with a blatantly falsified election is not an encouraging sign."

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