Turkmenistan president's death sparks power plays

AUTOCRATIC RULE: With no obvious heir to Saparmurat Niyazov, would-be successors are maneuvering behind the scenes, while Russia and the West jockey for position


Sun, Dec 24, 2006 - Page 4

The death of Turkmenistan's autocratic president set in motion a series of power struggles, as exiled opposition leaders clamored to return and world powers competed for influence over the Central Asian country and its vast energy resources.

The acting president, Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, said on Friday that the chief legislative body would set a date for elections next Tuesday. But one-party rule does not appear threatened in the country, which has never known democracy.

With no obvious heir to President Saparmurat Niyazov, who died of heart failure on Thursday, commentators said would-be successors were maneuvering behind the scenes.

They also said Niyazov's sudden death could lead to a contest between Russia and the West over the former Soviet republic's enormous natural gas and petroleum reserves, with the Kremlin seeking to influence who would become president.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a condolence message that "strengthening our partnership is in the true interests of the peoples of Russia and Turkmenistan."

And US President George W. Bush said the US hopes "to expand our relations with Turkmenistan."

Analysts said powerful security officials stood behind Berdymukhamedov, a deputy prime minister who is likely only an interim leader.

His rise to power was swift and surprising. Under the Constitution, Parliament Speaker Ovezgeldy Atayev was next in line for the presidency. But shortly after Niyazov's death was announced, Atayev was charged with abuse of power and human rights violations.

Berdymukhamedov signed an order dismissing Atayev for "committing a deed incompatible with the high position entrusted him."

Turkmenistan's prosecutor general accused Atayev in a statement of harassing and humiliating his own daughter-in-law and driving her to attempt suicide.

Berdymukhamedov said the People's Council, a 2,000-member legislature chosen by Niyazov, will meet on Tuesday to pick the candidates and set a date for presidential elections. But a decree the acting president signed suggested any elections may not be competitive.

"National presidential elections will be held on a democratic basis that has been laid by the great leader," the decree said, referring to Niyazov.

Khudaiberdy Orazov, Turkmenistan's former central bank chief living in exile in Sweden, told reporters that he and two other opposition leaders planned to return home to compete in the presidential election.

Another expatriate, former Foreign Minister Avdy Kuliyev, told Russia's RIA-Novosti news agency that he planned to return from Norway.

"We must hurry to Turkmenistan because time is on the side of the Niyazovite group," he said.