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Campaign to fill late Turkmen strongman's post hints at changes

Campaign to fill late Turkmen strongman's post hints at changes

With just over two weeks to go until presidential elections in Turkmenistan, the campaign is raising tantalizing hints of change coming to a country long ruled by one of the world's most bizarre authoritarian leaders.
Analysts suggest, however, that sweeping reforms are not in the works.
The Feb. 11 elections to fill the post held by Saparmurat Niyazov for two decades until his Dec. 21 death are being watched with interest by both Russia and the West because of Turkmenistan's immense natural gas reserves and its status as a stable country in a troubled region, bordering both Iran and Afghanistan.
Six candidates are running, including the heavily favored acting president. They have been speaking to campaign meetings in packed halls, promising improvements in the country's quality of life, and their remarks are reported in detail on television and in newspapers.
But there, the resemblance to elections in most countries ends. The campaign events are well-attended because authorities pressure people to go, Turkmens say. The media reporting on the meetings are all under tight state control.
The candidates themselves all had to be approved by Turkmenistan's highest legislative body, and all pledge ultimate fealty to the principles of Niyazov, whom they call "Turkmenbashi" or "Father of All Turkmen." Not only are there no opposition candidates, but Turkmenistan doesn't allow opposition parties at all.
"There is little likelihood that it's going to be like a real election," said Sean Roberts, a Central Asian affairs fellow at Georgetown University. "But there is definitely much more discussion of real problems in Turkmenistan during this election campaign than anyone has seen in the past 10 years."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe aims to send a small team of experts to follow the election, but will not mount a full observation mission because of lack of time to prepare.
A report by the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights noted that this will be Turkmenistan's first presidential election with more than one candidate.
"While these new developments are welcome indications of a recognition that the electoral process serves as the basis for democratic government, and merit support, they are no guarantee for a competitive election," the report said.
Niyazov led Turkmenistan during its last years as a Soviet republic. Once it became independent following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, he kept the country largely isolated while establishing a pervasive cult of personality.
His philosophical writings are required reading in schools, and he claimed anyone who read them three times a day was guaranteed a place in heaven. He banned opera and ballet and denounced lip-synching. His image was on every bill and coin, and statues of him were erected throughout the country, including a golden one in the capital of Ashgabat that rotated to follow the sun's path.
Interim President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov is promising to continue in Niyazov's path and his official program mentions no political reforms at all. Yet he promises agricultural, education and pension reforms, support of private entrepreneurship and unrestricted Internet access _ a serious rolling back of Niyazov's policies.
Underscoring U.S. interest, Evan A. Feigenbaum, deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, met with Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov and others during a four-day visit earlier this month, discussing issues including trade, democracy, human rights and security cooperation, the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat said.
Some of Berdymukhamdeov's campaign pledges have been repeated by other candidates, who include a deputy oil and gas minister and four provincial officials. Berdymukhamedov is seen as the all-but-certain winner; even Turkmenistan's elections chief has publicly endorsed him.
Niyazov maintained a Soviet-style state controlled economy, using the bulk of revenues from natural gas exports to expand the energy sector. He funded prestige projects such as palaces, amusement parks, luxury hotels and an artificial lake in the desert.
The state of the Turkmen economy has been hard to assess because Niyazov kept economic statistics secret. In recent years, he dramatically cut social programs, slashing pensions and abolishing them altogether for 100,000 elderly Turkmens. He closed most hospitals outside the capital and cut compulsory education from 10 to nine years.
Roberts said those cuts indicated that the economy was in "dire straits" and Berdymukhamedov has no choice but to start addressing the problems.
Arkady Dubnov, a Central Asia analyst in Russia, said that despite pledges of economic reforms, the candidates are unlikely to bring about real democratic change. "They are part of a political elite created by Niyazov, they cannot be democrats."
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Associated Press reporter Alexander Vershinin in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, contributed to this report.