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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mystery Over Next Turkmen President

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan -- U.S., Russian and Chinese officials prepared to fly to Turkmenistan on Tuesday to meet the nation's new leader, without officially knowing his identity.

The reclusive Central Asian country has yet to declare the winner of Sunday's presidential election, although it is widely expected to be acting leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Richard Boucher, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and others were due to gather in a giant blue-domed hall in the capital, Ashgabat, to attend an inauguration ceremony Wednesday.

The election, described as "not free and fair" by the head of a group of parliamentarians from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who watched the poll, was called to find a successor to late President Saparmurat Niyazov. The prize on offer for the foreign visitors to Ashgabat is a chance to influence long-term energy policy in the country following Niyazov's death in December of a heart attack after two decades of rule.

It was not clear when election officials intended to announce who had won the country's first contested election. Theoretically, there could still be a second round of voting.

The election pitted the acting leader against five candidates from the nation's only legal political party.

The exiled opposition, many of whom are former ministers who fell out of Niyazov's favor, accused the West of tacitly accepting a new dictatorship in Turkmenistan in pursuit of gas.

Russia and its gas-export monopoly Gazprom are now the key benefactors of that natural gas, buying it at below-market prices as it flows down a Soviet-era pipeline.

China is pushing a plan to build a new pipeline toward its territory while Europe and the United States would like to see gas flow under the Caspian Sea toward Europe and bypassing Russia.

The list of other dignitaries due to attend the ceremony included the European Union's Special Representative for Central Asia, Pierre Morel, along with the leaders of Ukraine and Georgia, two states that buy Turkmen gas via Russia.

Ismail Amat, a vice chairman of China's parliament, would also attend, Chinese media reported.

"We all understand that they need access to Turkmen natural gas. But, comrades, don't lose face, don't fall so low," Sapar Yklymov, a former Turkmen agriculture minister living in exile in Sweden, said by telephone.

His view was echoed by respected Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group, which called on the international community not to give Turkmenistan's new rulers the benefit of the doubt after the "choreographed" vote.

"[They should] require its new leaders to take the first steps to reverse Niyazov's most egregious socioeconomic policies and improve human rights," the think tank wrote.

Foreign diplomats in Ashgabat, citing Berdymukhammedov's pledges to reverse some of Niyazov's most unpopular policies, have expressed hope that the change in leadership might herald gradual change.