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Voters in Turkmenistan head to the polls

Six candidates are contending for Niyazov's job, but experts say that five of them are mere props in the victory spectacle, reports Fred Weir.

india Updated: Feb 11, 2007 15:18 IST
Fred Weir
Fred Weir

Voters in Turkmenistan head to the polls Sunday to elect a replacement for Saparmurat Niyazov, known as "Turkmenbashi" (Father of the Turkmen), the iron-fisted dictator who led the gas-rich Central Asian nation for 21 years until his sudden death in December.

The tiny desert country of 6-million has been isolated from the world, but may now hope for at least cautious liberalization, experts say.

Turkmenistan's former dependence on Russia to manage its gas exports could also face changes, especially stepped-up competition from China, they add.

Six candidates are contending for Niyazov's job, but experts say that five of them are mere props in the victory spectacle that has been pre-ordained for acting president Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, a former deputy premier, who won the brief power struggle following Niyazov's death. 

"The only question is whether the frontrunner will get 99 per cent of the votes, or maybe just 98 per cent," says Boris Makarenko, director of the Centre for Political Technologies in Moscow.

"But we should expect Turkmenistan's cooperation with Russia, which has always been good, to continue." 

Niyazov spent Turkmenistan's gas export income on lavish monuments to himself, while slashing social services and cutting pensions. 

Berdymukhammedov has pledged to boost social services, restore pensions, privatize some industries, permit people to build their own homes, restore transport links with Russia and even allow citizens to access the Internet.          

The prospect of changes in Turkmenistan, which holds the world's fifth-largest gas reserves, has excited great interest in the global energy community.

In 2003 Niyazov signed a 25-year contract with Gazprom, affording the Russian gas giant near total control over Turkmenistan's gas exports.

But last year Niyazov signed a tentative deal with Beijing, under which large quantities of Turkmen gas would be sold to China beginning in 2009.

In the 1990's there was talk -- which has never completely died down -- of building a pipeline south, through Afghanistan, to deliver Turkmen gas to South Asia.

Turkmenistan would be a natural candidate to join a "Gas OPEC", a global cartel of gas producers that Russian President Vladimir Putin has called "an interesting idea". The issue will probably figure on Putin's agenda during his visit next week to Qatar, another major gas producer.

"Niyazov used to say that Turkmenistan has enough gas to feed Russia, China and India too, but geologists are not so sure," says Mikhail Krutikhin, editor of Russian Energy Weekly, a Moscow-based trade journal. 

"The new leaders of Turkmenistan will basically have to decide whether the gas should flow north, to Russia, or east to China. I fear that Gazprom has not been paying enough attention to Turkmenistan lately, so the Chinese might win this race," he says.

Exiled oppositionists who tried to reach Turkmenistan have been turned away at the border.

Few foreign journalists have been granted visas to cover the polls, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which normally fields election observers, has decided to sit this one out due to "time constraints" on forming a delegation. 

The chair of the European Union's interparliamentary mission to Turkmenistan, Albert Jan Maat, told journalists last week that "these elections, only with candidates from the former government -- you can't call them real elections -- and that is not a (good) start for a more open society."

First Published: Feb 11, 2007 15:18 IST

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