Dictator's Death Spurs Tensions In Turkmenistan

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 22, 2006

MOSCOW, Dec. 21 -- The unexpected death of Saparmurad Niyazov, the repressive ruler of Turkmenistan, could unleash a power struggle in the energy-rich Central Asian republic, analysts here said, and disrupt natural gas supplies to the Russian energy behemoth Gazprom and its increasingly nervous customers in Western Europe.

Early signs of internal discord were evident in an official announcement that the speaker of the parliament's lower house, who under constitutional rules should have become acting president, had been placed under criminal investigation.

With winter closing in, the global energy industry was monitoring the surprise news from Turkmenistan closely. Turkmen gas is already an important element in state-controlled Gazprom's ability to meet customer demand at home and abroad and could become vital as demand rises over the next decade.

The United States has lobbied Turkmenistan, so far unsuccessfully, to build a pipeline across the Caspian Sea that would bypass Russian territory to deliver gas to the outside world. European countries have quietly supported the idea, which would reduce their dependence on Russia for supplies of natural gas.

The strategic competition known as the Great Game that bedeviled Central Asia more than a century ago may get a rerun as Western-oriented and exiled opposition leaders return to Turkmenistan and jostle with Russian surrogates for power in the vacuum left by Niyazov's death.

Complicating the mix are tribal politics and the loyalties of the powerful security services.

The Niyazov government was dominated by the Akhal Teke tribe, but the desert country's major gas fields lie in areas dominated by other tribes. Tensions over distribution of power and benefits from the sales never surfaced because Niyazov maintained an internal security cocoon that smothered any dissent.

Political institutions and discourse were enfeebled by Niyazov's dictatorial rule in the former Soviet republic, a largely Muslim country of 5 million people that borders Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Khazakhstan. . Niyazov's paranoid rule precluded serious discussion of any future transfer of power or the designation of a broadly acceptable successor.

Suddenly, dramatic political transformation seems possible.

Opposition leader Khudaiberdy Orazov, a former deputy prime minister under Niyazov who is now in exile in Sweden, said in a phone interview that he and other politicians living abroad hope to return as quickly as possible and take part in elections, which under the constitution should be held within two months. He warned of unrest unless Turkmenistan takes a new course.

"The situation in the country is catastrophic, and if anyone tries to continue Niyazov's policies, there will be a cataclysm," he said. "People have been suffering for too long."

"America must guarantee democracy," Orazov added, a demand likely to rankle Moscow, which is deeply suspicious of the U.S. seeding of opposition groups in former Soviet republics along its southern flank.

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