Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov was inaugurated as Turkmenistan’s new president at the Ruhiyev palace in Ashgabat on February 14. Reporters noted that 2,487 members of the Halk Maslahaty (People’s Council) and foreign guests, including heads of states and governments from 30 countries, attended the ceremony. The Russian delegation was led by Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, accompanied by Gazprom head Alexei Miller, while Turkey was represented by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkmenistan.ru, February 14). Presidents Nursultan Nazarbayev (Kazakhstan), Viktor Yushchenko (Ukraine), Emomali Rakhmonov (Tajikistan), Mikheil Saakashvili (Georgia), Hamid Karzai (Afghanistan), and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Iran) also were present. Other guests included parliamentary leaders Tegran Torosyan (Armenia), Vladimir Konoplev (Belarus), and Erkin Halilov (Uzbekistan), along with representatives from nearly a dozen more countries and the Vatican.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher represented Washington, as he had at the December 24 funeral of the late president Saparmurat Niyazov. The Turkmen leadership doubtless noticed this diplomatic snub, as the U.S. State Department has 24 assistant secretaries of state, one of whom is still “acting,” and six under secretaries. Whether an assistant secretary of state has the clout to compete with presidents and prime ministers for Turkmenistan’s vast energy reserves remains to be seen.
The presidential election took place on Sunday, February 11. According to the head of the Turkmen Central Election Commission, Myrat Garryyev, Berdymuhammedov received 89.23% percent of the votes cast, followed by Amanyaz Atajykov (3.23%), Ishanguly Nuriyev (2.38%), Muhammetnazar Gurbanov (2.37%), Orazmyrat Garajayev (1.55%), and Ashyrniyaz Pomanov (1.31%). Turnout was estimated at a remarkable 98.65% (Turkmenistan.ru, February 12).
The outcome of the election was never in doubt, as Turkmen election officials had announced Berdimukhamedov’s victory two days ahead of the official results (Turkmenistan.ru, February 12). The other candidates — all from Niyazov’s Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, the country’s only legal political party — were also handicapped by the admonition that they were not to criticize Berdymuhammedov during the campaign (Washington Post, February 4).
Journalists from Reuters, AP, Agence France Presse, China, Hong Kong, Iran, Pakistan, and other outlets were allowed to watch voters at some of the 1,625 polling stations (News Central Asia, February 11). Neither Western groups nor the Commonwealth of Independent States sent observers, although the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sent an “election support team.” According to the Turkmen state news agency, the election “a true national holiday” that demonstrated “Turkmens’ civil maturity.”
The few Western observers present were skeptical, but initially optimistic. After watching at a precinct, Vladimir Goryaev, head of the Asia Pacific department of the United Nations, remarked, “People are going to elections in holiday spirit and I am sure they will choose the best candidate for the high post of head of state ” (News Central Asia February 11).
The realities of the election subsequently erased any optimism. Joao Soares, a Portuguese member of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly who flew to Ashgabat for the election, was escorted to polling stations by Turkmen Foreign Ministry minders. In his words, “They may hardly be called elections and they were absolutely not free and fair” (Mediafax, February 12).
The suspect election follows the flagrant disregard for the constitution following Niyazov’s death on December 21. As one of his first official acts, Berdimukhamedov signed a law dismissing Niyazov’s constitutionally designated successor, speaker of parliament Ovezgeldy Atayev. The same day parliament approved a criminal indictment against Atayev, conveniently eliminating him as a presidential candidate.
The intense international interest in Turkmenistan revolves around the country’s massive energy reserves, estimated at billons of cubic meters of natural gas, the second-largest in the former USSR.
Turkmen natural gas exports currently flow northwards through Russia’s Transneft pipeline network. Niyazov considered this arrangement deeply exploitative, as Gazprom bought Turkmen gas cheaply and resold it for a handsome profit to Russian and European consumers. Potential Turkmen gas exports westwards were blocked by Niayazov’s quixotic attitude toward a final division of the Caspian Sea, since 1991 surrounded by five independent states (Turkmenistan, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Iran). Ashgabat’s intransigence blocked any plans for a pipeline under the Caspian. Export routes to the south via Iran were similarly blocked by Washington’s hostility toward international ventures investing in Iran, making it nearly impossible to raise the necessary capital. A proposed Trans-Afghan Pipeline was ruled out due to the rising power of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Thus Turkmenistan’s most likely market was eastward, toward China. Eight months before his death, Niyazov signed a deal with China for natural gas exports and pledged to commission a Turkmenistan-China pipeline by 2009 (MosNews, December 22, 2006). Just one day after Niyazov’s death, Berdimukhamedov reassured, “Let foreign consumers of our oil and gas not worry. Turkmenistan will strictly follow its commitments, and no event is able to influence our exports, because there is strict government control over all this” (Turkmen Television First Channel, December 22, 2006).
While the world awaits Berdimukhamedov’s agenda, a few general outlines already seem apparent. Berdimukhamedov has already pledged to continue Niyazov’s program of providing the population of Turkmenistan with free gas, electricity, and cooking salt. Bread, public transport, utilities, fuel, and communication prices will remain also remain subsidized for the present, while Internet access will be increased (Turkmenistan.ru, February 14).
Based on the number of dignitaries and foreign delegations that have been to Ashgabat in recent weeks, many eyes are watching for any changes in energy policy as well.