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Turkmenistan promises ‘democratic’ elections

MOSCOW – The man who unexpectedly became leader of Turkmenistan following the death of Saparmurat Niyazov pledged Friday that new elections will be democratic – but only in the late dictator’s interpretation of the word.Niyazov, who died Thursday at age 66, outlawed opposition parties and served as president for life. He tolerated no dissent, personally approved the content of all newspapers and had authorities block Web sites critical of his reign.”National presidential elections will be held on a democratic basis that has been laid by the great leader,” Gurbungali Berdymukhamedov, the acting president, said Friday in a decree.Analysts predicted a struggle for control both within this arid country, which is rich in oil and natural gas, and between Russia and the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Bush, in separate messages of condolence, both said they wanted to build ties with Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital.The Turkmen constitution says the speaker of parliament assumes power on the death of the president. But just hours after Niyazov’s death was reported, the national security council named Berdymukhamedov acting president and announced that speaker Overzgeldy Atayev had been charged with unspecified criminal offenses.Meanwhile, opposition leaders living abroad said a plane they had chartered from Sweden to Turkmenistan was canceled by Turkmen authorities, the Interfax news agency reported. Many of Niyazov’s political opponents fled, facing arrest, in the wake of an alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov in November 2002.Putin said Friday that “strengthening our partnership is in the true interests of the peoples of Russia and Turkmenistan.” Bush said Thursday the U.S. hopes “to expand our relations” with Turkmenistan.Russia’s Komsomolskaya Pravda daily predicted Friday that a “fierce struggle” has begun to succeed Niyazov. “This will determine who takes control of the gas wealth of Turkmenistan, Moscow or Washington,” the newspaper said.Russia’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily said that the power vacuum could lead to “serious geopolitical changes.”All Turkmen gas is now exported via Russian pipelines, and critics accuse the Kremlin of using its control of energy supplies to exert political pressure on its neighbors, including Ukraine and Georgia.For years, the U.S. has sought transit routes for Central Asia’s oil and gas that would bypass Russia. Washington has lobbied for a pipeline across the Caspian Sea to the west, skirting Russia’s southern border.The new pipeline would tap sources of crude and gas outside the Middle East, and could draw former Soviet states away from Russia and closer to the West.Niyazov held absolute power and created an elaborate cult around himself after the desert nation of 5 million, which lies north of Afghanistan and Iran, gained independence with the 1991 Soviet collapse.Years of authoritarian rule have left Turkmenistan without alternative political leaders, the Central Asia expert Arkady Dubnov wrote in the liberal Russian daily Vremya Novostei.Although all top Kyrgyz political figures are members of Niyazov’s Turkmenistan Democratic Party, analysts say there are factional and clan-based divisions.The date of the next presidential elections will be set by the People’s Council, the country’s highest legislative body, at a session scheduled for Dec. 26, Berdymukhamedov said in a decree carried by official newspapers.The People’s Council is made up of about 2,000 officials and hand-picked by Niyazov, who endorsed his most important decisions.Turkmenistan last held presidential elections in 1992, and Niyazov won with 95.5 percent of the vote.Friday’s editions of Turkmen newspapers, which are all state-controlled, devoted all their coverage to Niyazov’s death, carrying front-page photographs of him and – in a Soviet tradition – reaction and condolences from citizens and staff of various enterprises.”Our hearts are overflowing with sorrow,” “Feeling the pain of a loss,” “An irreplaceable loss,” announced the somber headlines in an official newspaper, Neutral Turkmenistan.”The news of our president’s death burst into my heart as a dark cloud. My eyes filled with tears and I could not hold them,” wrote Amanbibi Khadjimamedova, a day care manager from the town of Turkmenbashi, named after Niyazov’s official title, which means “Father of all Turkmen.”All restaurants, cafes and liquor shops were closed throughout the country. Weddings were ordered postponed until the end of the national mourning period on Dec. 30.The funeral was scheduled for Sunday.


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