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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Turkmen Leader Looking to Liberalize His Country

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Turkmenistan's acting president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who had promised only continuity with the severely authoritarian policies of his predecessor, is proposing measures that would help lift the nation from its fortresslike isolation.

Berdymukhammedov promised a laundry list of changes affecting agriculture, social assistance programs, education and the economy.

The proposals, outlined in a speech Thursday in Ashgabat, the capital, included giving students access to foreign universities -- including those in the United States -- sending doctors to Western hospitals and extending primary schooling to 10 years.

Berdymukhammedov also vowed to create a culture of entrepreneurship, suggesting that he would encourage private ownership of some residences and businesses. Almost all economic activity in Turkmenistan is tied to the government. He also promised to allow universal access to the Internet.

Turkmens are allowed almost no contact with the outside world. In recent years, even foreign newspapers and cable television from Russia were prohibited under the mercurial rule of Saparmurat Niyazov, the president for life, who died Dec. 21.

Simply receiving a telephone call originating in a foreign country can arouse the interest of Turkmenistan's feared security apparatus, said Turkmens who had spoken to journalists.

Berdymukhammedov's public comments underscored the fluidity of the nation's opaque politics as it prepared for a presidential election Feb. 11, foreign analysts said.

"I think there is a much more deeply rooted struggle for power in Turkmenistan than we originally thought," said Martha Brill Olcott, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

As acting president, Berdymukhammedov, a former deputy prime minister, was prohibited by the constitution from seeking the presidency. But the national legislature simply changed the rules to allow him to run and then approved a slate of colorless, midlevel bureaucrats and politicians as false opposition candidates.

But Berdymukhammedov may fear that such tactics are backfiring, Olcott said, strengthening the opposition in exile and increasing the chances that his opponents will gain Western backing.

"Berdymukhammedov is seeking ways to appease the foreign community in order to get support for a very nondemocratic constitution modified in a very nondemocratic way, and to validate an election in which the electoral process was flawed from the beginning," she said.

The government says it is neutral, but Turkmenistan's dependence on customers for its natural gas deposits has given outside powers influence.

But few signs of outside pressure have been seen. "[The] Turkmenistan government is going to have to moderate their own political process," Sean McCormack, a U.S. State Department spokesman, said Wednesday, when asked by reporters how the United States would respond to recent lobbying from Turkmen opposition figures for support of the country's exiled political opposition.