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
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. …