By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
MOSCOW, Dec. 26 -- The top legislative body of Turkmenistan ruled Tuesday that the Central Asian country's acting president and five other people -- none of them from the exiled opposition -- can run for president in an election it set for Feb. 11.
Opposition groups denounced the decision and called on the United States and the European Union to press for a genuinely open contest to replace former president-for-life Saparmurad Niyazov, who died unexpectedly last week after 15 years of authoritarian rule.
The selection of acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov as a candidate appeared to strengthen him and his backers as a largely invisible power struggle unfolds.
The selections were made by the People's Council, a legislative body of 2,507 elected and appointed members that Niyazov had packed with loyalists. The council had to amend the constitution, which barred an acting president from running, to include Berdymukhammedov as a candidate.
The key figure in the unfolding power struggle appears to be Gen. Akmurad Rejepov, head of security for the former president. He may be backing Berdymukhammedov, 49, as his surrogate, some analysts and opposition figures said. But other analysts said that given the opacity of Turkmenistan's politics, he could just as easily be behind any of the other five candidates, a deputy energy minister, three city mayors and a deputy mayor.
"It stands to reason to expect control over the country to end up in the hands of men from the secret services," the Russian commentator Arkady Dubnov wrote this week.
Niyazov, who called himself Turkmenbashi, or Father of all Turkmens, had wielded dictatorial power in Turkmenistan since the country became independent in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union. No obvious successor had emerged before his death.
"What we saw today was a circus," Khudaiberdy Orazov, an exiled opposition leader, said in a telephone interview from Sweden. "Niyazov is dead, but Niyazovism is still alive."
Orazov was chosen to run in the election by a coalition of exiled opposition groups meeting in Ukraine this week. But he said he was still unsure whether he would be able to return home and expressed frustration at the lack of a strong Western declaration about the need for free and open elections.
"If the leader of Belarus wags his finger, there is uproar from the European Union and Washington, but when it comes to dictatorship in Turkmenistan, they act helpless," he said. "All the slogans about human rights are only on paper."
The E.U. and the United States imposed sanctions on Belarus after flawed presidential elections there last year. Turkmenistan, which is rich in natural gas and offers a potential alternative to supplies from Russia, has escaped that kind of collective action.
The largely Muslim country of 5 million people that borders Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is a key supplier of natural gas to Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled energy giant. Any instability in Turkmenistan could affect Gazprom's ability to meet customer demand at home and abroad. Access to the country's natural gas resources is vital, particularly for Russia, as demand rises over the next decade.
The United States and the E.U. would like to see construction of a pipeline from Turkmenistan that avoids Russia, a development Niyazov had not authorized.
The People's Council officially considered 12 candidates Tuesday before settling on six. Each had to receive two-thirds of the votes of the delegates who met in the Turkmenbashi Palace in the capital, Ashkhabad. Berdymukhammedov was the only candidate approved unanimously, signaling his strength within the country's closed elite.
The Turkmen constitution was apparently violated when Berdymukhammedov, previously a deputy prime minister, was named acting president, superseding the speaker of parliament's lower house, Ovezgeldy Atayev. Under constitutional rules, the speaker should have become acting president.
Atayev has meanwhile been placed under criminal investigation on corruption charges, according to state news media. And state television in Ashkhabad showed Defense Minister Agageldy Mamedgeldyev being elected to the presidium of the People's Council.