Turkmenistan's New Leader Little-Known

The Associated Press
Monday, December 25, 2006; 1:03 PM

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- As health minister of Turkmenistan, he presided over a medical system regarded as one of the world's worst. Now Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov is suddenly head of the country.

Little is known about the man who became acting president after the death of Turkmenistan's longtime authoritarian leader, including his intentions of staying in office. The constitution says the acting president cannot become full leader _ but the constitution also says he was not supposed to become acting president to begin with.

Under the late President Saparmurat Niyazov's domineering cult of personality, all other officials remained in the shadows, their public statements mostly limited to praising Niyazov and promising to follow his orders.

But Dosym Satpayev, a political analyst in Kazakhstan, says there is reason to believe that Berdymukhamedov is more than just a mouthpiece. He told The Associated Press that some former Turkmen officials describe Berdymukhamedov as "clever and professional in his field" and less heavy-handed than Niyazov.

"There are chances for some changes," he said.

Berdymukhamedov clearly has skills as a survivor. The 49-year-old former dentist has been health minister since 1997 and deputy prime minister since 2001 _ a long tenure given Niyazov's penchant for firing senior officials.

The new leader's rise appeared to be a master stroke of maneuvering. Under the constitution, the speaker of parliament is supposed to take over temporarily upon the death of the president. But within hours after Niyazov's death, Berdymukhamedov was named acting president _ and the parliament speaker was dismissed because of a criminal investigation.

Whether Berdymukhamedov engineered the ascension or was the figurehead for other forces remains in question.

In either case, some analysts see the move as a harbinger of continued one-party rule.

The national People's Council on Tuesday is to set a date for new elections and consider candidates for the vote. According to the constitution, the elections must be held within two months and the acting president cannot run. However, the People's Council also has the power to change the constitution.

Russian analyst Arkady Dubnov said the elections could be put off until the spring or even the autumn and suggested the vote, whenever it is held, would hardly be pluralistic.

"It's not known how many candidates will be put forth officially and how the sifting of them will go as the election gets closer, so that it becomes clear to the citizens of Turkmenistan whom they should, in reality, vote for," he wrote in Monday's edition of the Moscow newspaper Vremya Novostei.

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