Saturday, January 6, 2007

Turkmenistan in transition


Next to Kim Jong Il, there was no dictator the world loved to hate more than Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov. The grotesquely eccentric president of Turkemenistan was known across the planet chiefly for his panache for the absurd, building colossal golden statutes of himself, outlawing ballet, and renaming bread after his dead mother, among other things.

But now he's dead, and the party is over. In his place, the nation's former health minister, the painfully named Gubanguly Berdymukhammedov (seen at right) has awkwardly assumed the presidency. The constitution had to be changed twice to allow it, but that's the way Turkmenistan works.

Mr. Berdymukhammedov was deputy prime minister under Turkmenbashi (who was both president and prime minister, naturally) yet few people seem to have heard of him until now. Articles from western journalists that attempt to profile the man make liberal use of words like "unknown" and "mysterious," such as this one in Forbes, "Turkmenistan's new leader little-known."

Other than the fact that he was health minister for one of the world's most unhealthy nations, one thing we do know about the new president is that he managed to have a rather lengthy career in Turkmenbashi's cabinet without ever being fired or murdered. This suggests the former dictator must have had an unusually high level of affinity for him, and according to this blogger, people in eastern Europe are now gossiping that Berdymukhammedov may be Turkmenbashi's illegitimate bastard-child.

Anyway, Turkmenistan has now decided that they're going to go through the motions of a presidential election, tentatively scheduled for February 11. Along with Berdymukhammedov, five candidates from Turkmenistan's only legal political party have been approved. An opposition guy apparently wanted to run too, but it looks like they've taken care of him in a hurry.

Lest we get too excited, Radio Free Europe gives us a history of elections in Turkmenistan:

"Since gaining independence in 1991, Turkmenistan held one presidential election, in June 1992, when President Niyazov ran unopposed and officially received 99.5 percent of the vote."

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