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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Berdymukhammedov Takes Office

ReutersDelegates of the People's Congress attending the new president's swearing-in ceremony Wednesday in Ashgabat.
ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan -- Turkmenistan's new president took office Wednesday with a pledge to follow the ways of longtime autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov, but also promising changes in a country ruled for decades in an all-encompassing cult of personality.

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov was sworn in at a session of the People's Council, the highest legislative body, a few minutes after the head of the central elections commission announced that he had won Sunday's election with nearly 90 percent of the vote.

That poll was the first time Turkmenistan held a presidential election with more than one candidate. But all six candidates were members of the country's only legal political party, and Berdymukhammedov has shown no signs of interest in ending Turkmenistan's one-party system.

Since becoming interim president after Niyazov's Dec. 21 death, Berdymukhammedov has called for changes from the path set by Niyazov, who had fostered an overwhelming cult of personality in his two decades in power and had kept Turkmens largely isolated.

He repeated those calls in his inauguration speech to the People's Council, including a pledge to allow ordinary Turkmens access to the Internet, which under Niyazov was available only to officials, journalists and some organizations.

He also promised "development of private ownership and entrepreneurship," educational reforms, and more doctors and hospitals.

Berdymukhammedov himself, as health minister, was responsible for implementing Niyazov's order in 2005 to close all hospitals outside the capital and fire some 15,000 doctors.

Niyazov had kept the country's economy largely under state control and had reduced compulsory education to nine years from 10.

Although Berdymukhammedov's proposed reforms would roll back some of Niyazov's policies, he also has pledged to follow the general course set by the late leader, who dominated the country in a personality cult that included calling himself Turkmenbashi, which means Father of all Turkmen.

In his inauguration speech, he promised "to dedicate myself to the legacy of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great."

Niyazov remains an overwhelming presence in Turkmenistan some two months after his death. Statues of him abound, including a golden one in the capital that rotates to follow the sun's path. He renamed months and days of the week after himself and members of his family.

His philosophical book, "Rukhnama," is required reading in schools. Council elders presented Berdymukhammedov with a copy of "Rukhnama" at the inauguration, where many council members held up portraits of Niyazov.

Berdymukhammedov's move for changes in Turkmenistan are sure to be watched closely by Russia and the West, both of which have substantial interest in the country because of its enormous natural gas reserves and because of its stability and neutrality in a contentious region -- Turkmenistan borders both Iran and Afghanistan.