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Turkmenistan's new leader a little-known figure

Turkmenistan's new leader a little-known figure

As health minister of Turkmenistan, he presided over a medical system regarded as one of the world's worst _ including the closure of all hospitals outside the capital. Now Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov is suddenly head of the country.
Little is known of 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 can't become full leader _ but the constitution also says he wasn't 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 some reason to believe that Berdymukhamedov is something other 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 political survivor. The 49-year-old former dentist has been health minister since 1997 and deputy prime minister since 2001 _ a long tenure in view of Niyazov's penchant for firing senior officials, often accusing them of corruption.
His rise to the position of acting president appeared to be a master stroke of political 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 in Turkmenistan.
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.
Any attempt to cultivate genuine popular support for Berdymukhamedov could be undermined by questions over his actions as health minister.
He was responsible for implementing Niyazov's 2005 decree that all hospitals outside Ashgabat be closed and that 15,000 civilian doctors be fired and replaced by military physicians.
The move was denounced by human rights organizations including Amnesty International, which also noted that because Turkmens increasingly have to pay for a wide range of treatments "health care has become financially inaccessible to most people."
Although Turkmenistan takes in billions of dollars of natural gas revenue a year, its health system is widely regarded as the second worst in the ex-Soviet Union _ ahead of only Tajikistan, a country that has virtually no natural resources to sell.
The World Health Organization says Turkmenistan's life expectancy is the lowest in Europe _ in which the WHO includes the country _ just 56 years for males.
But if Berdymukhamedov faces popular discontent, he may be more in danger from high officials, Satpayev said.
"When the initial shock goes, he will begin to have problems. Not all in Niyazov's circle are lambs _ they will understand that they might lose their previous positions and begin intrigues," he said.
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Associated Press writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report