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President sworn in amid cautious hope for change

[Turkmenistan] The cult of the leader.
Under former president Saparmyrat Niyazov, who died late last year, controversial topics such as drug trafficking and drug addiction were largely taboo (IRIN)

A new Turkmen president has been sworn into office after winning the country’s first presidential election in 15 years with a resounding 89 percent of the vote. Observers are watching the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, to see if Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov will honour campaign pledges of social reform, and question whether the new leader will bring political liberalisation to this tightly controlled country.

The new Turkmen leader has pledged to continue the policies pursued by his predecessor, Saparmyrat Niyazov, who ruled Turkmenistan for 21 years and fostered a personality cult that saw towns, streets and a month named after him. Millions of dollars were spent building lavish palaces and monuments.

Berdymukhammedov – a 49-year-old former dentist - has also to improve the education and healthcare systems, devastated by cuts in recent years, and hinted at some political liberalisation for this one-party state.

''There is no other option for Turkmenistan than comprehensive reform. The pledges made by Berdymukhammedov are just cosmetic.''

Human rights groups argue that the limited pledges are not enough, and say that instead of giving the new leadership the benefit of the doubt, the international community should be pressing for change.

"There is no other option for Turkmenistan than comprehensive reform. The pledges made by Berdymukhammedov are just cosmetic," said Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, a Turkmen rights agency based in Bulgaria.

This poll was Turkmenistan’s first multi-candidate election, with Berdymukhammedov beating five challengers. It was also the first time the country has seen traditional campaigning.

Critics have pointed to the fact that all candidates were officially sanctioned and opposition leaders in exile were unable to stand, and said the campaign was mere window-dressing. However, it did open up political dialogue among an electorate more used to being told what to think than to debate.


  • Population of some 5 million
  • Is a closed state
  • Government controls every aspect of life
  • No public Internet access
  • As a sign of change, three Internet cafes are expected to be opened in the capital.

“A conversation about politics and policy is … a massive improvement on what came before – even if it is a very contained and sanitised dialogue,” Michael Denison of the University of Leeds said.

In a sign of increased openness, Berdymukhammedov used the campaign to raise the hitherto taboo topic of drug abuse – a serious problem in Turkmenistan, which is on a major heroin trafficking route from Afghanistan. Describing it as “a misfortune for the whole of mankind”, Berdymukhammedov said it had to be tackled.

The new president is a former health minister who oversaw massive healthcare cuts under Niyazov, even as revenue from energy reserves filled the public coffers. He has promised more hospitals and better healthcare access to this nation of five million.

Planned education reforms include expanding access to learning abroad, which had been severely curtailed, increasing the number of higher education establishments and bringing foreign lecturers to Turkmenistan.

''A conversation about politics and policy is … a massive improvement on what came before – even if it is a very contained and sanitised dialogue.''

Observers are also watching for the restoration of full secondary and tertiary education facilities – both of which were cut under Niyazov - and for changes to the curriculum, which centres on teachings from the ‘Ruhnama’, a quasi-spiritual guide written by Niyazov, who fostered a cult of personality and liked to be known as Turkmenbashy – Leader of the Turkmens.

Any changes are likely to be gradual, observers say. “I don’t think [the ‘Ruhnama’] will be disavowed,” Denison said.  “It might just [become] rather perfunctory.”

In a sign that at least some campaign trail pledges can be taken at face value, reports from Ashgabat say moves are afoot to open three internet cafes following Berdymukhammedov’s pledge to expand access. The move has been heralded as a cautious step towards wider access to information in a country that has strictly controlled internet use.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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