As Turkmenistan is facing presidential elections on 11 February, it is becoming increasingly clear that the late Nyýazow's successors have begun to turn their backs on Saparmurat Türkmenbaşy's political legacy, in brokering the terms of Aşgabat's new oligarchy.
Abandoning Nyýazow's unique Turkmen third way alternative to the values of modern civilization, seems the preferred choice of the new regime in the making. A recent secret poll, by the Eurasian Transition Group, shows that 81% of Turkmens support democratic reform, while 55% doubt that the upcoming elections will be free and fair. Even though these figures are far from reliable, they indicate popular fatigue with the current situation and a wish for change. The political realization of this has led political leaders to at least simulate a free and democratic process for the upcoming elections.
That Türkmenbaşy's political legacy is in question is furthermore signalled by declarations to restore the education system dismantled by Nyýazow, return to fully fledged pensions, grant free access to the Internet, and even restore railway traffic with Russia. All the same, the intentions of Turkmenistan's new leadership are far from clear. Thus, it seems that repression has been stepped up since the December 21 death of Nyýazow, and Reporters Without Borders singles out Turkmenistan as one of the most repressive countries in the world, in its 2007 annual press freedom survey. Despite reformatory indications, it thus stands beyond doubt that the main goal of current power in Aşgabat is to safeguard stability and a peaceful transition of leadership.
In an excellent article in Sunday's Washington Post, Peter Finn presents an overview of the situation for the upcoming elections. Whereas Turkmenistan for the first time allows more than one person to run for office, it is more than obvious that acting president Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow will be declared winner on Sunday. Thus, the remaining five presidential candidates stand under constant supervision of the national security service, MNB, and their public appearances are directed by the political principles outlined by the leading candidate, Berdimuhammedow. Indeed, all measures since Nyýazow's death have been directed towards bringing Berdimuhammedow into power, including constitutional violations and changes.
As for power, it however seems that Berdimuhammedow is rather a frontman of an evolving political oligarchy, centred around the national security council, than a strong political figure in himself. Allegiance to the legacy of Nyýazow - interpreted however the new rulers see fit - here appears to become both a formula for legitimacy and a tool to suppress whatever opposition might arise. Consequently, it seems that Turkmenistan is poised for a transition to oligarchic dictatorship rather than any real or even gradual reform process.
As for international reactions to the new situation they may be characterised by a combination of relief over Nyýazow's death with hopes to exploit any chances of closer cooperation with Aşgabat, not least within the energy sector. Thus, both the US and the EU are stepping up their contacts with Turkmenistan. However, it is Russian president Putin that, by all appearances, stands as victor in the struggle over relations with Aşgabat. Putin was the first to single out Berdimuhammedov for support and thereby Moscow seems to be succesful in safeguarding Russian interests - primarily the 25 year gas accord with Turkmenistan, signed in 2003. By supporting Berdimuhammedow, Putin seeks a successor who will honour the committments so crucial for Russian interests in and influence over the region. However, also China lurks about in the scenery, trying to secure a recent deal to build a gas pipeline to meet the country's increasing energy demand.
To sum up, it is in the interests of both domestic and international actors to maintain stability in Turkmenistan, almost whatever it takes. It is likely that internal interests of the current regime will be strong enough to exercise oligarchic dictatorship with the silent consent of the international community. If worst comes to worst, Nyýazow can always be used as a common scapegoat for the country's lack of progress. Such acts of "turkmenbashing" however seem distant in today's Turkmenistan.