Turkmen Candidates Practice Pliancy

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 4, 2007

MOSCOW -- Six presidential candidates are barnstorming the country and holding public meetings to talk about improving education, reforming health care, ensuring adequate pensions and boosting agriculture.

It could be Iowa -- if it weren't Turkmenistan.

Acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, 49, will almost certainly win when the Central Asian country's citizens go to the polls Feb. 11. His opponents, a deputy minister and four regional officials, are willing foils, according to analysts and exiled politicians.

Murad Karyev, the supposedly neutral chairman of the Central Election Commission, has already said Berdymukhammedov is the best man for the job.

But the modicum of debate in a country that during its 15-plus years of independence lived under the megalomaniacal shadow of president-for-life Saparmurad Niyazov amounts to a slight thaw. For the first time, the country will hold a presidential election in which more than one candidate is running.

Each of the six candidates continues to pledge loyalty to the legacy of Niyazov. But their stump speeches contain some implicit criticism of the late president by acknowledging the need to reverse the erosion of social programs, in particular.

"We know who the winner is already," said Murad Esenov, director of the Institute for Central Asian and Caucasian Studies in Sweden. "However, there are other candidates, and the fact that they have the possibility to speak up is significant and good. I believe there will be certain changes, because everyone realizes they cannot live as they lived before."

The exiled opposition has been prevented from returning to take part in the election. A coalition of exile organizations chose Khudaiberdy Orazov, a former vice premier and head of the Central Bank, to run as their candidate, but he is sitting out the campaign abroad.

"They are trying to create an image of real elections, but of course these are not elections. It's some sort of clownery," said Orazov, who lives in Sweden. "I believe we are entering the second stage of dictatorship."

Agents from Turkmenistan's internal security service, the MNB, are shadowing five of the candidates to ensure they don't stray from their scripts and say things contrary to policies laid out by the leading candidate, according to the Eurasian Transition Group, a nongovernmental organization in Germany that is one of the few with a presence in Turkmenistan.

"The other five candidates have to attend security council meetings, where they receive their orders," said Michael Laubsch, executive director of the German group. "Everything is concentrated on Berdymukhammedov, and the MNB have total control over the other candidates."

For the outside world, the direction Turkmenistan takes will carry profound implications for energy security. The former Soviet republic is becoming the focus of competition among Russia, China and the West as they vie for its natural gas resources.

Most of Turkmenistan's gas is now exported through Russian pipelines. The supply could become vital to the ability of Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, to meet rising demand over the next decade. But Western governments would like to see construction of new export routes that bypass Russia and diversify the supply chain, something Niyazov had resisted.

China has already secured a deal to build a new pipeline that will deliver billions of cubic yards of natural gas annually over 30 years, beginning in 2009.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has embraced Berdymukhammedov. At a news conference Thursday, Putin mused favorably on the idea of an OPEC-like organization for natural gas, although he stressed, "We are not going to set up a cartel."

The United States and the European Union have stepped up contacts with Turkmenistan's new leadership. The opposition-in-exile has expressed frustration at what it sees as muted statements from those countries about the need for real democratic change.

Under Niyazov, who was 66 when he died of heart disease in December, Turkmenistan was one of the world's most isolated countries, subject to the bizarre whims of a leader who squandered vast amounts of revenue from natural gas resources on monuments to himself.

The country's education system, which forced students to study Niyazov's writings, was gutted. The number of years students spent in school was cut, and foreign degrees were not recognized. Pensions for 100,000 elderly citizens were summarily denied. Ballet and opera were banned as alien. Dissidents were jailed or forced into exile.

Exiled human rights activists have taken comfort from the release this week of an environmentalist who was given a three-year suspended sentence, rather than the usual prison term, after being convicted on a weapons possession charge that was widely seen as trumped-up. But that was offset by the ruthless suppression last month of a prison riot at a facility outside Ashkhabad, the capital. Twenty-three people were killed, according to human rights activists.

Berdymukhammedov, a dentist by profession and a former minister of health, has said that he will relax controls on Internet access, among the most stringent in the world, and that Turkmenistan may eventually move toward a multiparty system.

"I would like to be the president of a democratic country where people enjoy freedom and every condition to work and to rest, and where justice, peace and friendship dominate," Berdymukhammedov said, to sustained applause, at a televised meeting last month.

Whether such rhetoric is a short-term ploy to consolidate power by a governing class still unsure of its popular standing is unclear. But emerging regional and tribal concerns, suppressed under Niyazov, could also accelerate the need for broader power-sharing.

In a secretly conducted poll of 1,145 respondents across Turkmenistan after Niyazov's death, the Eurasian Transition Group found that 81 percent of those surveyed want a president who supports democratic reforms, and 55 percent believe their votes will not be counted on election day.

"Berdymukhammedov needs to build up a certain respect, and I believe he will allow some relaxation," said Farid Tuhbatullin, a former political prisoner in Turkmenistan and now the director of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, based in Vienna. "The opposition who live in the West may have a chance to build up a dialogue with the authorities, and then maybe later they may be able to legalize their activity in the country."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company