MOSCOW — The political ice may finally be cracking in the gas-rich, desert nation of Turkmenistan. Its 6 million people will get their first ever chance to vote in multicandidate elections this Sunday in polls to replace longtime strongman Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in December without naming an heir.
But the appearance of choice may be illusory, analysts say, making the Central Asian nation's first election more the stuff of hype than history.
Six contenders are vying openly for the post left vacant by the self-titled "Azim Turkmenbashi" (Great Father of the Turkmen), who ruled with an iron fist – and increasingly erratic style – for 21 years. Experts say that five of the candidates, mostly second-tier regional officials, are merely window dressing and victory has been pre-ordained for acting president Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, a former deputy premier who won the brief power struggle following Niyazov's death.
However, Mr. Berdymukhammedov has pledged to institute cautious liberal reforms, and there are signs that Turkmenistan's hitherto ironclad dependence on Russia's Gazprom to handle its gas exports might also change.
"The Turkmenbashi's death has shaken the regime, and at least opened up the possibility of positive changes," says Irina Zvigelskaya, an analyst with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. "But, at this point, no one really knows what we're dealing with. The new leader could hardly be just like Niyazov, but there are no guarantees that he won't choose the same despotic model of rule."
But the potential for a departure from the old politics of Turkmenistan, which holds the world's fifth-largest gas reserves, has excited great interest in the global energy community.
In 2003 Niyazov signed a 25-year contract with Gazprom, affording the Russian gas giant near total control over Turkmenistan's gas exports. But last year, Niyazov signed a tentative deal with Beijing, under which large quantities of Turkmen gas would be sold to China beginning in 2009.
The US would like to see Turkmenistan ship its gas and oil across the Caspian Sea, where it could be loaded into the new Baku- Ceyhan pipeline and transported to Western markets. In the 1990s there was talk – which has never completely died down – of building a pipeline south, through Afghanistan, to deliver Turkmen gas to the hungry markets of the Indian subcontinent.
"Niyazov used to say that Turkmenistan has enough gas to feed Russia, China, and India, too, but geologists are not so sure," says Mikhail Krutikhin, editor of Russian Energy Weekly, a Moscow-based trade journal. "The new leaders of Turkmenistan will basically have to decide whether the gas should flow north to Russia, or east to China. I fear that Gazprom has not been paying enough attention to Turkmenistan lately, so the Chinese might win this race."
Some experts speculate that real power is in the hands of the chief of Niyazov's palace guard, Akmurad Rejepov, a shadowy former Soviet KGB official. Under the Constitution, the speaker of parliament, Ovezgeldy Atayev, should have become acting leader after Niyazov's demise. Instead, Mr. Atayev found himself in prison facing an unspecified "criminal investigation."
The Halk Maslahaty (Peoples' Council), a megaparliament of 3,000 members that met once a year under Niyazev, was hastily summoned to appoint Berdymukhammedov as acting president. It also approved the six candidates for the presidency – all of whom were required to swear allegiance to Niyazov's political policies.
Exiled opposition politicians who have tried to enter Turkmenistan have been turned away at the border. Few foreign journalists have been granted visas to cover the polls, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which normally fields election observers, has decided to sit this one out due to "time constraints" on forming a delegation.
In an interview with Radio Free Europe, the chair of the European Union's interparliamentary mission to Turkmenistan, Albert Jan Maat, said that "these elections [are] only with candidates from the former government – you can't call them real elections – and that is not a start for a more open society."
Nevertheless, experts say it's reasonable to hope that the harsh repression and wild extravagance that marked the Turkmenbashi's rule may ease. Niyazov jailed thousands of opponents, expelled ethnic Russians, and jammed news broadcasts from Moscow. He slashed social services, abolished old age pensions, and ordered the number of school years for children reduced. He banned ballet and opera as "alien," and forbade men to wear beards or teenagers to play video games.
At the same time, he squandered the country's export earnings from gas and cotton on lavish monuments to himself and his deceased mother, and renamed the months of the year after himself, his mother, and various relatives. A year ago, fearful of palace plots, Niyazov ordered all doctors to swear a personal oath to himself instead of the Hippocratic Oath.
"Everything is known in advance. Berdymukhammedov will win," exiled Turkmen journalist Bytyr Mukhammedov told the Russian daily Moskovsky Komsomolets. The front-runner has been quoted by the official Turkmen press as pledging to boost social services, restore pensions, privatize some industries, permit people to build their own homes, restore transport links with Russia, and even allow citizens to access the Internet. "Changes are already being implemented, and I think the new regime will evolve slowly toward civilization," said Mr. Mukhammedov.