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Central Asia news

Power struggle in Ashkhabad is but beginning

05.02.2007 12:36 msk

Professor Shohrat Kadyrov

Analytics Turkmenistan

The first presidential election is about to take place in Turkmenistan. Moscow will remain number one partner.

The people of Turkmenistan will be electing its president for the first time on February 11. Saparmurat Niyazov, the leader for the last 21 year, died in late December 2006. Despite the official reassurances concerning the unchangeability of the former domestic and foreign policy, Niyazov's demise raised a great deal of questions.

More than a doctor

Deputy Premier Gurbankuly Berdymuhammedov, the late president's personal doctor, is the likeliest successor. Berdymuhammedov was the first to know of Niyazov's death. Instead of calling the parliament, he immediately contacted the Security Council. The latter met and voted to break the Constitution. Had Berdymuhammedov done something else, Akmurat Rejepov (chief of the presidential security service) and he might have been jailed on the orders given by Parliament Chairman Ovezgeldy Atayev on charges of having helped the president to die. As things stand, however, it was Atayev who was thrown behind the bars. The Turkmen authorities proved ready for Niyazov's death but there is no evidence whatsoever that the Turkmenbashi's death was arranged.

Legitimate illegitimacy

The day following Niyazov's death, the Security Council voted to make Berdymuhammedov acting president. Judging by the telegrams with condolences from world powers and Turkmenistan's neighbors, the international community has accepted the choice. Had the Turkmenbashi died before 2001 when media outlets throughout the world were condescendingly ironic on his regard, reaction of the international community might have been different. World media outlets ran a great deal of stories on how Niyazov was violating the Constitution and how the cult of personality was taking shape in Turkmenistan. Following that, replacement of the regime in Turkmenistan looks like light at the end of the tunnel. Hence politicians' conviction that illegitimate methods are legitimate all right when deployed against an illegitimate regime.

Turn, not turnover

In any case, the new leadership appears to be determined to invoke certain liberalization and abandon autocracy for oligarchic rule. One the one hand, the international community hears promises to continue the Turkmenbashi's policy but not a word is uttered on the subject of democracy. On the other, measures are taken indeed: return to the previous system of secondary and higher education and fully fledged pensions, free access to the Internet, and even restoration of railroad traffic with Russia. What conclusions may be drawn from number one candidate Berdymuhammedov's promises to voters come down to this: it is not a turnover that occurred Turkmenistan, it is but a turn or rather return to a model of evolution that world knows and understand. By and large, it implies abandonment of Niyazov's concept of "the unique", "Turkmen", "third" way to the values of modern civilization.

Amendments to the Constitution expand the People's Council. On the one hand, it makes the body even more bulky and ponderous (a liability when decision-making is needed in haste). On the other, it is the people associated with the new regime that are elected into it now. Other amendments to the Constitution enable all organizations of the National Movement for Revival (under the aegis of the pro-president Democratic Party) to approach new leadership directly.

Who will become whom

Period of transition to the oligarchic rule is logical, because throughout the last 10-15 years domestic struggle in Turkmenistan has been restricted to the Turkmenbashi's wars on his ministers and deputy premiers (not to the Turkmenbashi's wars on the exiled democrats). Niyazov sacked statepersons - all of them influential and wealthy - by the hundreds. Powerful and odious deputy premiers Rejep Saparov, Yelly Kurbanmuradov, Dortkuli Aidogdyev, Prosecutor General Kurbanbibi Atajanova, Presidential Press Secretary Kakamurad Ballyev were imprisoned on Niyazov's orders. There is no saying at this point whether or not all of that was a part of the oligarchs' plans, but the power struggle would have been much more vicious now had all these people remained in the corridors of power.

Purges in the upper echelons of state power in the last several years rid post-Niyazov leadership of the necessity to arrange staff shuffles - at least before the presidential election. On the other hand, the core of the new ruling elite is already known. It certainly includes Berdymuhammedov with ten years in the government behind him (dentist Berdymuhammedov spent the last five years as a deputy premier in charge of science, education, and health care). It also includes the men running for president now and Security Council members: Deputy Premier and Defense Minister General of the Army Agageldy Mamedgeldyev (acting president's classmate in the medical college, pediatrist with a diploma, and Secretary of the Security Council), Interior Minister General Akmamed Rahmanov (41), State Security Minister Lieutenant General Geldymuhammed Ashirmuhammedov (49), Prosecutor General Muhammetkuli Oglushkov (42), and governors of five regions. Last but not the least, experts assume that Rejepov (55), is to become a new public politician. (Rejepov was the chief of security under the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan Mahamednazar Gapurov.)

Paradoxical as it undoubtedly is, but Rejepov name has never been mentioned in any official post-Niyazov document issued by the new powers-that-be. There is no information on whether he is an official member of the Security Council or merely an addition to it promoted after Niyazov's death. Aware of this lack of hard knowledge, some analysts entertain certain doubts concerning Rejepov's own wish to be a public politician. On the other hand, his election to the post of secretary of the Security Council is not ruled out. Amendments of the Constitution adopted in the wake of the Turkmenbashi's demise make the Security Council the supreme body empowered to take over whenever the president or People's Council chairman cannot perform their functions for some reason. This state of affairs legalizes the status Rejepov has had for almost a year already.

New amendments to the Constitution lead to the conclusion that Berdymuhammedov, the future president of Turkmenistan, will be elected chairman of the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council) on February 14, 2006 - just as his predecessor, the Turkmenbashi himself, was elected. Berdymuhammedov is ideal for the post. He is 49, and the revised Constitution demands that the president be at least 40 years (it was 50 recently). Promotion of someone else may be dangerous because the president is accountable to the Halk Maslahaty and its chairman. Since the president is simultaneously the head of the executive branch of the government, it automatically solves the problem with the next prime minister. Moreover, nobody has ever voided the provision of the Constitution that declares Turkmenistan a presidential republic.

The post of chairman of the parliament remains vacant for the time being, but the new amendments to the Constitution make this particular power structure essentially helpless because it is the secretary of the Security Council who will take over in an emergency.

Step forward, two back

Stability is one of the major assets of the Turkmenbashi's legacy. The new leadership needs stability too - not for its own sake of course but as a means of buying time to charter and launch adequate legal and administrative reforms, arrange for a well-balanced redistribution of power, and enhance representation of ethnic and social groups in power structures. The tactic of one-step-forward-and-two-back is the best choice for the new leadership if advance to a new level of development is what it really is after.

On the other hand, the new is but a forgotten old. That is why what the new policy comes down to is the determination to try and beat trump cards of the opposition - both domestic and abroad. The new regime will certainly commandeer some of the slogans and demands of the opposition and thus try to earn the population's support. The slogans concerning modernization will be acted upon - but only for the sake of oligarchs, not ordinary people. It is not going to be democracy yet, just a step in this direction.

Illegitimacy of the regime (Berdymuhammedov is but an acting president) is another nuance compelling it to launch the reforms. Society is not going to understand prompt appearance of a new Turkmenbashi.

Russia's role

Speaking of the role of Russia, it is necessary to remember the gas accord signed in 2003 for the following 25 years. Once the document was signed, Russia found itself worrying over one problem only - that of the Turkmenbashi's successor. Moscow needed someone who would honor the contract terms. It would be the only guarantee of the contract. So far, not a single candidate for president has spoken up for a revision of the gas accord. Elevated to the pinnacle of political power, Berdymuhammedov will find himself bound by the commitments made by his predecessor. It follows that his choice of geostrategic allies will be somewhat restricted. In the meantime, Berdymuhammedov is a Russian protege just like Niyazov was.

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Professor Shohrat Kadyrov (Norwegian Institute of Foreign Policy)

Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 5, 2007, p. 15

© Translated by Ferghana.Ru