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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tantalizing Hints of Coming Change

APTurkmen soldiers guarding a gold statue of Niyazov, who died in December.
ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- With three weeks to go until the presidential election in Turkmenistan, the campaign is raising tantalizing hints of change coming to a country long ruled by one of the world's most bizarre leaders.

Analysts suggest, however, that sweeping reforms are not in the works.

The Feb. 11 election to fill the post, which was held by Saparmurat Niyazov for two decades until his Dec. 21 death, are being watched with interest by both Russia and the West because of Turkmenistan's immense natural gas reserves and its status as a stable country in a troubled region, bordering both Iran and Afghanistan.

Six candidates are running, including the acting president. They have been speaking to campaign meetings in packed halls, promising improvements in the country's quality of life, and their remarks are reported in detail on television and in newspapers.

But that is where the resemblance to elections in most countries ends. The campaign events are well attended because authorities pressure people to go, Turkmens say. The media reporting on the meetings are all under tight state control.

The candidates themselves all had to be approved by Turkmenistan's highest legislative body, and all pledge ultimate fealty to the principles of Niyazov, whom they call "Turkmenbashi" or "Father of All Turkmen." Not only are there no opposition candidates, but Turkmenistan does not allow any opposition parties at all.

"There is little likelihood that it's going to be like a real election," said Sean Roberts, a Central Asian affairs fellow at Georgetown University. "But there is definitely much more discussion of real problems in Turkmenistan during this election campaign than anyone has seen in the past 10 years."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe aims to send a small team of experts to follow the election, but would not mount a full observation mission because of lack of time to prepare.

A report by the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said this will be Turkmenistan's first presidential election with more than one candidate.

"While these new developments are welcome indications of a recognition that the electoral process serves as the basis for democratic government, and merit support, they are no guarantee for a competitive election," the report said.

Niyazov led Turkmenistan during its last years as a Soviet republic. Once it became independent following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, he kept the country largely isolated while establishing a pervasive cult of personality.

His philosophical writings are required reading in schools and he claimed that anyone who read them three times a day was guaranteed a place in heaven. He banned opera and ballet and denounced lip-synching. His image was on every bill and coin, and statues of him were erected throughout the country, including a golden one in the capital of Ashgabat that rotates to follow the sun's path.

Interim President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is promising to continue in Niyazov's path and his program mentions no political reforms at all. Yet he promises agricultural, education and pension reforms, support of private entrepreneurship and unrestricted Internet access -- a serious rolling back of Niyazov's policies.

Underscoring U.S. interest, Evan Feigenbaum, deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, met with Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov and others during a four-day visit that ended Sunday, discussing issues including trade, democracy, human rights and security cooperation, the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat said.

Some of Berdymukhammedov's campaign pledges have been repeated by other candidates, who include a deputy oil and gas minister and four provincial officials.

Berdymukhammedov is seen as the all-but-certain winner; even Turkmenistan's elections chief has publicly endorsed him.

Niyazov maintained a Soviet-style, state-controlled economy, using the bulk of revenues from natural gas exports to expand the energy sector. He funded prestige projects such as palaces, amusement parks, luxury hotels and an artificial lake in the desert.

The real state of the Turkmen economy has been hard to assess because Niyazov kept economic statistics secret.

In recent years, Niyazov dramatically cut social programs, slashing pensions and abolishing them altogether for 100,000 elderly Turkmens. He closed most hospitals outside the capital and cut compulsory education from 10 to nine years.

Roberts said those cuts indicated that the economy was in "dire straits," and Berdymukhammedov has no choice but to start addressing the problems.

Arkady Dubnov, a Russian Central Asia analyst, said any seeming signs of democratic change to accompany economic reforms should not be overestimated: "They are part of a political elite created by Niyazov, they cannot be democrats."