Friday January 26, 2007
Apparently oblivious to concerns about democratic transition, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, was quick to cement ties with Mr Berdymukhamedov, a Niyazov favourite, who was named interim president. The two men exchanged assurances about a continuing, close energy relationship.
Washington has not been totally inactive, sending two mid-level envoys to Ashgabat. But having tolerated Niyazov's authoritarian personality cult and courted his energy favours, its public statements about the succession have been cautious. The European Commission declared this month that the EU should expand its strategic stake in central Asia, human rights notwithstanding. But exiled Turkmen opposition leaders say that by turning a blind eye to a looming electoral travesty, western countries are passing up "a historic second chance" to advance democratic reform and reverse Moscow's energy dominance to their own advantage.
"Niyazov was a selfish, kleptocratic despot," said Nurmuhammet Hanamov, chairman of the exiled Republican party of Turkmenistan, writing in the Washington Post - and now, he suggested, there was a danger of history repeating itself. All the other official presidential candidates belonged to the ruling Democratic party, the media were under strict state control, and the supposedly independent election chief had already stated that Mr Berdymukhamedov was the best man for the job.
All the same, the country's ruling clique is leaving little to chance. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting has published emigre reports that domestic security and surveillance have been stepped up "to ensure nothing happened to derail Berdymukhamedov's journey to power". And despite his reform promises, Robert Arsenault of the International League for Human Rights suggested little would change without concerted outside pressure. "The future of Turkmenistan and its more than five million people is up for grabs," he told the Baltimore Sun. "The US has a splendid opportunity to use its diplomatic influence to effect a democratic outcome."
But as was the case last year across the Caspian in democratically challenged Azerbaijan, Washington, harbouring hopes of energy deals, appears to prefer not to rock the boat. A friendly Turkmenistan, bordering Iran and Afghanistan, also has high strategic value. That has led exiled opposition presidential nominee Khudaiberdy Orazov to appeal to the US not to acquiesce in a cynical "gas for dictatorship" deal.
"Please show that human rights and human freedoms [are] not some abstract concept with you and that you are ready to fight for them, not only in the places that you find convenient, but wherever it is happening in the world," he said.