New Turkmen Boss Pledges to Open Up

Rather than ape the ways of his dictatorial predecessor, Turkmenistan's President vows "development of private ownership and entrepreneurship" and other reforms

It's not easy to follow in the tracks of one of the world's most infamous tyrants.

This is the task facing Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, now into his second month as president of Turkmenistan.

Turkmen watchers and opposition figures, many of them now living abroad and eagerly following events back home, wonder whether the new leader will keep his promise to work for a better future or continue down the path of the dictatorial Saparmurat Niyazov.

The question is difficult to answer since little is known about the new president.

Berdymukhammedov was born in 1957 in the village of Babarap. He graduated from the dentistry faculty of the Turkmen State Medical Institute and later completed his medical doctorate in Moscow. He began his career in dentistry in 1980, and in 1995 became head of the dentistry center of the Turkmen Health Ministry. In 1997, Berdymukhammedov was appointed health minister, and in 2001 he was named deputy prime minister and put in charge of implementing Niyazov's order to close all hospitals outside Ashgabat and fire thousands of health workers.

When Niyazov died, he took over as acting president instead of Ovezgeldy Atayev, the speaker of parliament, to whom the office should have fallen under the constitution. Atayev was put under arrest right after Niyazov's death and sentenced to five years in prison by the Supreme Court of Turkmenistan in late February for "driving to suicide" his would-be daughter-in-law, according to the news agency.

Political analysts and opposition leaders described the subsequent presidential election in February as "falsified" and "unfair."

Berdymukhammedov was sworn in on 14 February immediately after election officials announced that he had won nearly 90 percent of the votes in an election held three days earlier.

ANOTHER LIBERAL NIKITA?"Berdymukhammedov can become another Nikita Khrushchev," Satpayev said. "Members of today's Turkmen elite will not allow him to be another Turkmenbashi because it would be dangerous for them."

Khrushchev succeeded Josef Stalin after the death of the longtime tyrant. He amnestied political prisoners, eased the state's interference in private life, and denounced Stalin's personality cult.

Berdymukhammedov "will have to undo Niyazov's personality cult, otherwise someone else will replace him," Bairam Shikhmuradov, the human rights officer of the opposition Republican Party of Turkmenistan, who lives in Moscow, told TOL.

Shikhmuradov is the son of former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in connection with an alleged attempt on Niyazov's life in 2002. Although he described the February election as "unfair," he said, "The people have waited for freedom for too long. Freedom appeared on the scene and it would be very difficult to take it away from them [now]."

Other opposition politicians are more skeptical about Berdymukhammedov's aptitude for starting a thaw in Turkmenistan.

Parahat Yklymov, the Sweden-based acting chairman of an opposition body, the Foreign Committee of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Turkmenistan, said, "Khrushchev had great personal charisma and possessed outstanding leadership qualities. Berdymukhammedov has not been noticed as a person resembling Khrushchev in these qualities but he can prove to be such a man in the future."

Meanwhile, Berdymukhammedov himself is trying hard not to be seen as a new Khrushchev. In an interview he gave to Turkmenistan magazine after his inauguration, he said, "Having the example of the first president of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Turkmenbashi, it is difficult to assume that someone else can be a bigger authority in politics and the affairs of state."

FIRST STEPSNevertheless, as soon as he was sworn in, the new president began making changes. He signed a decree introducing compulsory 10-year education, restoring a year of schooling cut by Niyazov, and opened the first Internet cafes in Ashgabat.

But in interviews with TOL, experts were split on whether Berdymukhammedov will in fact keep his promises.

Avdy Kuliev, leader of the United Democratic Opposition of Turkmenistan who now lives in Norway, said, "Unlike Niyazov, Berdymukhammedov will conduct a policy of appeasement so that the Turkmen people will think he is the sort of leader they need and so that he will be in power for as long as possible."

Indeed, some believe that Berdymukhammedov will be just a figurehead while real power will rest with Akmurad Redzhepov, the head of presidential security under Niyazov. "Redzhepov has practically come to power [already]," said Batyr Mukhamedov, a Moscow-based member of the Turkmen opposition.

Ivan Merkel, a committee chairman in Parahat Yklymov's opposition group and a former chairman of the community of ethnic Germans in Turkmenistan who now lives in Moscow, said, "To realize Berdymukhammedov's promises is not difficult. I think he will carry out many reforms because he must strengthen himself in the international community to get support so that he can fight those who brought him to power."

Farhad Ilyasov, a Moscow-based sociologist, said Berdymukhammedov would realize reforms "as far as there are sufficient political, economic, and administrative resources for it."

MAN WITHOUT A FACEWith a population of just 5 million people, Turkmenistan has massive natural gas reserves as well as a strategic location, bordering the Caspian Sea, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Iran, and Uzbekistan. The biggest customers for Turkmen gas are Russia, Ukraine, and Iran. Turkmenistan's gas is a key tool in Russian president Vladimir Putin's attempt to strengthen Russian influence in other countries.

Under Niyazov's rule, Turkmenistan became an unreliable energy provider; gas supplies to Russia were frequently cut off during price disputes. A recent agreement with China has led to a price hike for Russia.

After Niyazov's death, Turkmenistan confirmed its intention to continue its current contract to supply natural gas to Russia's Gazprom until 2028, giving Russia a say in who has access to Turkmen energy.

But Berdymukhammedov also promised to honor all commitments under international and bilateral contracts. Moreover, in his interview with Turkmenistan, he compared Turkmenistan's Soviet past to "slavery."

"Niyazov attempted to free himself from Russia through alternative [energy supply] routes, and that policy will be continued," the Assessment Risks Group's Satpayev said. That assessment was confirmed by the émigré opposition politician Yklymov, who said, "It is difficult to consider gas relations with Russia an equal partnership. Berdymukhammedov will gradually move away from Russia."

But adding to the mixed signals that marked his first days in office, Berdymukhammedov also implicitly attacked the United States in his interview when he said, "As for democracy, this tender substance cannot be imposed by applying ready-made, imported models. It can only be carefully nurtured by using the wise national experience and traditions of previous generations."

Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Richard Boucher, who met with top Turkmen officials including Berdymukhammedov, called for Turkmenistan's new leadership to diversify energy export routes, implement reforms, and "walk the walk" on energy and democracy. "You have to say things but you also have to do things," Boucher told an audience at the U.S. embassy in Ashgabat on 16 February, adding that freedom to travel and access to information could be granted quickly.

Satpayev, meanwhile, sums up the views of most experts and oppositionists: "Berdymukhammedov is a dark horse." He may have won the race but that's pretty much all that the people of Turkmenistan know about him.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.