By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 15, 2007
MOSCOW, Feb. 14 -- A new president of Turkmenistan was inaugurated Wednesday following a tightly scripted election and an officially tallied landslide of 90 percent of the vote, a victory that Western observers and exiled opposition leaders said was the only result permitted.
Despite the orchestrated outcome, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, 49, hinted in his inaugural address that he might relax a system of suffocating political controls in the energy-rich country, according to news service reports. The election was itself the first with more than one candidate for president, although all candidates came from the same party, the only one allowed in the former Soviet republic.
There was no full-scale international monitoring of the vote, but officials with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which sent a handful of observers, said privately that the election was neither free nor fair. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos, whose country currently chairs the OSCE, urged Turkmenistan to "commit itself to a process of political reform and democratization."
Taking the stage before the country's highest legislative body, the new president walked on a white felt-cloth carpet, an augur of good luck. Turkmens dressed in traditional robes and woolly hats gave him a quiver of gold arrows, symbolizing the strength of the people, according to reports from the capital, Ashkhabad.
Presidential elections were called in December after President Saparmurat Niyazov died of heart disease. Niyazov had isolated the country and created an overweening cult of personality. The school year was cut, and students were forced to study Niyazov's book of philosophy, the Rukhnama.
Under his rule, hospitals outside the capital were closed and 15,000 doctors were laid off. Pensions were summarily cut. Niyazov was accused of siphoning off vast amounts of money from the country's natural gas sales.
In his address, Berdymukhammedov promised to continue Niyazov's policies, and he kissed a copy of the Rukhnama. At the same time, he pledged policies that seemed to part with Niyazov's ideology, pledging to improve the blighted education system, expand access to the Internet for ordinary citizens and encourage new business. During the campaign, he raised the possibility of a multiparty system.
He stressed continuity in Turkmenistan's natural gas contracts, which are a vital cog in the supply chain of Russian energy giant Gazprom. The inauguration was attended by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and Gazprom's chief executive, Alexei Miller.
"According to our plans to transport energy to world markets, we will stick firmly to bilateral agreements, and in future we will base our relations on mutual benefit and equal rights," Berdymukhammedov said in a stiff address that contrasted with a colorful ceremony.
The ceremony was also attended by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher. The United States and the European Union would like to see some Turkmen natural gas exported to Western Europe via a new pipeline that would bypass Russia, a potential project the country's previous leader resisted.
Foreign guests at the inauguration flew in before the election result was officially known. But no one expected Berdymukhammedov to be forced into a second round of voting against any of the five little-known and subservient candidates who ran against him in the first round.
Berdymukhammedov's opponents were closely monitored by the secret police and were expected to tout the candidacy of their principal opponent while making gentle noises about reforming the country, according to Western analysts.
The country's Central Election Commission said that Berdymukhammedov, a former health minister, won with 89.7 percent of the vote and that turnout was almost 99 percent. Both figures defy belief, Western observers and opposition leaders said.
"These elections were embarrassing, and we cannot accept the results," said Khudaiberdy Orazov, who was chosen by the exiled opposition as its candidate but was not allowed to return home and run. Orazov spoke in a telephone interview from Sweden, where he lives.
"The election was a show," he said. "In reality, it is a dictatorship, and the internal control will only increase."