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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Turkmen Heir Apparent Is No Niyazov

When Turkmen voters go to the polls Sunday, they are expected to install acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov as the successor to the late leader Saparmurat Niyazov.

Turkmen political watchers say that if Berdymukhammedov is elected, he will keep the gas-rich country on the course set by his authoritarian predecessor, who paid lip service to neutrality while effectively anchoring his country to Russia through gas exports.

"This will be a smooth transition," said Turkmen historian Skhokhrat Kadyrov, adding that the death of Niyazov last December had been anticipated for some time.

"It was long known who would take over," Kadyrov said by telephone from Oslo.

Berdymukhammedov was Niyazov's deputy and became interim president after the dictator's death Dec. 21 in apparent violation of the constitution, which stipulates that the speaker of the parliament should step in until elections are held.

"The new leadership violated the constitution and lacks legitimacy, which the election will help to provide," Kadyrov said.

Berdymukhammedov shares the ballot with five other candidates in Sunday's presidential election. But analysts say his opponents are only running to lend legitimacy to the vote.

Even the country's elections chief has expressed confidence that Berdymukhammedov, 49, will prevail in the country's first presidential election in nearly 15 years.

Moreover, Turkmenistan's neighbors are expected to recognize the election result in the absence of assessments from international organizations. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has reportedly sent a team to the country, but will not issue an assessment.

Berdymukhammedov's rise to power may have surprised outside observers, but most in Turkmenistan considered the succession question closed, given that Berdymukhammedov survived numerous cabinet reshuffles under Niyazov and enjoyed the support of Akmurad Redzhepov, the powerful head of Niyazov's security detail.

Niyazov, known as Turkmenbashi, or Father of the Turkmen, ruled the country with an iron hand for 21 years. He largely predetermined Turkmenistan's short-term energy policy by agreeing, in a 2003 deal with Gazprom, to export the bulk of the country's gas via Russia for the next 25 years.

This agreement, combined with the close links between Moscow and Berdymukhammedov's team, means the president-elect will have little latitude to diversify his foreign policy in the short term, analysts agree.

Arkady Dubnov, a prominent Moscow-based expert on Central Asia, said Moscow might also try to cement ties with Turkmenistan by drawing it into a regional organization such as the Eurasian Economic Community.

As Berdymukhammedov solidifies his own power base, however, he may begin to seek alternative routes for the country's energy exports.

"This depends on the line Turkmenistan takes in the long term. Either it will continue to give priority to Russia, or it will pursue an independent energy export policy," said Valery Nesterov, an oil and gas analyst at Troika Dialog.

"Down the road it will be in their interest to diversify, just as it is for any country," he said.

Dubnov said recently that Russia had at least two years before major energy importers such as China began exerting powerful influence on the country.

China has been pushing for a direct pipeline via Kazakhstan. The United States and the European Union have also lobbied -- so far unsuccessfully -- for Turkmenistan to diversify its gas exports by building a pipeline via Kazakhstan and the Caspian Sea.

Washington has already begun to court Berdymukhammedov. Evan Feigenbaum, deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, met with Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid in late January.

The EU has also taken an interest and will engage Ashgabat even if Sunday's vote is not deemed free and fair, a senior Western diplomat said Thursday. "The current German presidency is very keen to increase the EU's focus on Central Asia," said the diplomat, who declined to give his name.

"But Russia is by far the strongest and the EU the weakest," the diplomat said. "The European Commission doesn't even have a representation in Ashgabat."

No immediate change is likely in Turkmen foreign policy, but Berdymukhammedov has already announced a number of domestic reforms, including the reversal of pension and education policies introduced by Niyazov.

Niyazov canceled the pensions of some 100,000 elderly people, reduced the length of mandatory schooling, restricted enrollment at universities and banned young people from studying abroad. He also restricted the use of the Internet, banned foreign newspapers and even Russian television stations.

"Reforms are essential to prevent the gradual collapse of the state, because of Turkmenbashi's experiments in the past," the senior Western diplomat said.

Berdymukhammedov will adopt a "very gradual" approach to reform, "since he needs to consolidate his position before initiating changes," said Zeyno Baran, a Central Asia expert at the Hudson Institute, a U.S.-based think tank.

Turkmenistan also needs economic reform and foreign investment in the gas sector if it is to meet its contractual obligations for gas exports, Nesterov of Troika Dialog said.

Turkmenistan has been exporting less than 64 billion cubic meters of gas annually since 2001, but it needs to sell 80 to 90 bcm to Russia alone in 2008-2009 under its 25-year agreement with Gazprom, Nesterov noted.

According to BP's Statistical Review of World Energy, Turkmenistan has 2.9 trillion cubic meters of gas reserves, but the actual figure may be higher, since these data are imprecise and based on Soviet-era audit methods that make proper comparison difficult. Niyazov claimed that his country had a 7-trillion-cubic-meter field and total hydrocarbon resources equivalent to 45.44 trillion cubic meters.

While cautiously implementing social and economic reforms, Berdymukhammedov has so far ignored appeals from foreign NGOs to release political prisoners and to initiate democratic reforms. This is not likely to change after Sunday, analysts said.

Any meaningful democratization would rouse the ire of the ruling elite's conservative wing, and Berdymukhammedov will seek to avoid confrontations until he has cemented his hold on power, said Kadyrov, the Turkmen historian.

Even if Berdymukhammedov prevails in Sunday's election as expected, he is unlikely to become a powerful autocratic ruler like Turkmenbashi, Kadyrov said, adding that the country would more likely be run by a number of competing clans.