Battle for power and gas resources looms in Turkmenistan

Dec 22, 2006 01:00 AM

The sudden death of Turkmenistan's president Saparmurat Niyazov has prompted predictions of a power struggle inside the ex-Soviet republic and a fierce contest among world powers coveting the desert nation's energy reserves.
In a deceptive semblance of normality, portraits of the autocratic Niyazov, who controlled every aspect of this mainly Muslim Central Asian republic, continued to look down from buildings, and statues of the man known as the Great Turkmenbashi (leader of all Turkmen) remained in place. State television broadcast funeral music following the announcement of Niyazov's death from a heart attack. New Year's decorations were removed from the streets, black ribbons were attached to flags and alcohol sales were banned.

Beneath the outward calm, a gaping power vacuum is waiting to be filled, left by the death of a man who declared himself president for life and ruled like a king in a country that is of growing geopolitical interest to powers such as China, Russia and the United States. Turkmenistan not only has massive natural gas reserves but is a key part of US plans to turn Central Asia into a new energy supplier to the outside world -- independent of the former regional power Moscow.
"His death has launched a vicious fight for power in Turkmenistan and, what is more important, a new stage of struggles between Russia, China, the European Union and other... parties," a report wrote.

Ahead of the funeral, residents expressed shock at Niyazov's death.
"You can hardly believe that our leader, whom we saw as having been sent to us forever by the Almighty, suddenly died like an ordinary person," said Batyr Ishankuliyev, 48, a civil servant. "I am afraid for the future. The most important thing now is that no conflict arises," said Lyudmila, 58, at one of the city's markets.
Russia's Izvestia published pictures of the jewel-encrusted rings that the deceased leader wore. The newspaper said that his close family, all of them somewhat estranged from Niyazov, were returning home -- his wife and daughter from London and son from the United Arab Emirates.

The most likely successor appeared to be the new interim president, deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov -- despite a constitutional bar on an interim president standing for election. He was shown on television sitting in Niyazov's chair of state, declaring: "We have today lost a great man. Our country is orphaned.... Turkmenistan will continue Turkmenbashi's policy."
But an analyst with Russia's Vremya Novostei newspaper, Arkady Dubnov, doubted Berdymukhammedov's ability to retain control.
"I don't think the interim leader is a serious figure who can control the situation and ensure order," said Dubnov.

In an early sign of infighting, Berdymukhammedov's nomination as interim leader coincided with news that the speaker of parliament -- who should have become interim leader under the constitution -- faced a criminal investigation. A session of the country's Popular Council, made up of more than 2,500 Turkmen officials, was to set a date for a presidential election -- due within two months.
Opposition movements -- brutally crushed under Niyazov and all based in exile -- denounced the former leader and said they were seeking Western support before trying to travel to the country.

"Only democracy can bring stability -- the people won't accept it calmly if Berdymukhammedov continues Niyazov's policies," said Avdy Kuliyev, leader of the United Turkmen Opposition.
"The people are tired. The education system is broken, so is the health system and there is no work. Only the drug trafficking system works freely -- the legal system doesn't work," Kuliyev told.

The international community urged calm, but Washington also made clear its interest in relations with Turkmenistan.
"We look forward to continuing to expand our relations... to a bright future for that country and to a government that provides justice and opportunity for its people," US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
Foreign heads of state expected at the funeral included Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who has cultivated energy ties with Ashgabat, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country has sought a leadership role in the Turkic-speaking countries of Central Asia.

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