Turkmenistan Awaits First 'Free' Elections ; the Gas-Rich Nation Gets Its First Multiparty Election on Sunday, with a Vote That Experts Say Is Stacked

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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. …