The first allegedly fair election of president in the history of sovereign Turkmenistan was expected to give answer to the question of whether or not there is afterlife
Is there life in Turkmenistan after the death of the Father of all Turkmens Saparmurat Niyazov? Answer to the question is more important than that to the question of whether or not there is life on Planet Mars. Moreover, Turkmenistan (also unlike Mars) is now in the focus of attention of its neighbors in the region and world powers whose leaders are frantically trying to learn to say the name of the new Turkmen president without stumbling. The election yesterday proves that there is life in Turkmenistan indeed. On the other hand, the election does not even begin to answer another question, one no less important: what kind of life is it? And, as a corollary, what is going to happen to Turkmenistan now and to its relations with the international community?
The unwonted word "reforms" has already been uttered. That the country will change is undeniable. On the other hand, nobody will venture a guess on the pace of the forthcoming reforms, their radicalism, scope, general direction, or the effect they will have on society and the country (this latter is particularly important a factor because it just might foment social unrest). It is clear in the meantime that the new president will have to clean the Augean stables his predecessor the Turkmenbashi left behind the facade of Ashkhabad with its palaces, fountains, and posh hotels. The so called Turkmen neutrality, central idea of the country's foreign policy under the late president, will be put to test. Saparmurat Niyazov did manage to realize the concept of an energy world power and "ethnic tinted" or "sovereign" Turkmen democracy that did not generate too many protestations in the West (this accomplishment certainly envied by all other pot-Soviet "sovereign democracies"). Niyazov commanded the respect of George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin, and Victor Yuschenko. Still, continuation of the former policy under Gurbankuly Berdymuhammedov is unlikely.
It is unlikely for a fairly simple reason. Berdymuhammedov's positions in Turkmenistan cannot be as unshakeable as those of the Father of the Nation who enjoyed the unquestionable support of the people and the staff of his own palace. The new leader does not want to be king for a day and needs powerful advisors therefore. Some sort of a deal (gas in return for political support of the regime) will have to be struck in the name of stability of the regime.
The West may now try to use the new Turkmenistan to elbow Russia out. After all, this country was viewed as a potential instrument and a major resource in the matter of having West Europe rid of dependance on the Russian gas even when Niyazov was alive. The new leader has to make a couple of symbolic gestures that will demonstrate his interest in a Western (as opposed to "ethnic tinted") democracy, and that will be that. Moreover, a lot of the regimes that had finally seen the light travelled this path before Turkmenistan (countries from Pakistan to Libya). In other words, the Turkmens do not even have to rack their brains.
Observer Sergei Strokan
Kommersant, February 12, 2007, p. 9