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Last Updated: Friday, 21 December 2007, 09:50 GMT
Profile: Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov
Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov
Mr Berdymukhamedov has introduced reforms in Turkmenistan

Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was sworn in as president of Turkmenistan on 14 February, following the country's first contested elections.

He faced what was widely seen as token competition from five other candidates from the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, the only registered party.

Mr Berdymukhamedov had been acting president of oil-rich Turkmenistan since 21 December 2006, after the sudden death of the country's long-standing authoritarian ruler, Saparmurat Niyazov.

When he came to power, Mr Berdymukhamedov pledged to follow the ways of his flamboyant predecessor but correspondents have suggested that some of his early reforms and proposals appeared to contradict Niyazov's decrees.

Personal dentist

Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was born in 1957 in the village of Babaarap in the Ashgabat region of the former Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic.

There is little information about his early life, but it is known that he graduated from the dentistry faculty of the Turkmen State Medical Institute in 1979 and later completed his PhD in Medical Sciences in Moscow.

He began work as a dentist in 1980, and in 1995 became head of the dentistry centre of the Turkmen Ministry of Health.

At the same time he was appointed associate professor and dean of the dentistry faculty of the Turkmen State Medical Institute. He subsequently became President Niyazov's personal dentist.

Health reforms

Mr Berdymukhamedov became a public figure in December 1997 when he was appointed Minister of Health, and in April 2001 he was also named deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers.

Although his time as health minister was fairly uneventful, Mr Berdymukhamedov made the headlines once in April 2004, when President Niyazov decreed he would not be paid for three months because workers in Turkmenistan's state healthcare sector were also not being paid.

Later that year, Mr Berdymukhamedov was responsible for implementing Niyazov's reforms of the health service, which many observers have blamed for its near collapse.

One of the most controversial of these decrees ordered the closure of all hospitals, except those in the capital Ashgabat and in some major regional towns, the sacking of 15,000 healthcare workers and their replacement with untrained army conscripts.

Succession

In spite of his ministerial positions, however, observers were surprised when Mr Berdymukhamedov was appointed acting president of Turkmenistan after Niyazov's sudden death from a heart attack on 21 December 2006.

Berdymukhamedov kisses a copy of ' Rukhnama', written by the late President Saparmurat Niyazoy at his inauguration
Mr Berdymukhamedov pledged to follow the ways of Niyazov

Under the Turkmen constitution, the post should have gone to Owezgeldi Atayew, the chairman of the supreme representative body of power, the Halk Maslahaty, or People's Council.

Mr Berdymukhamedov told state TV that Mr Atayew had been sacked after a criminal investigation into his activities.

Mr Berdymukhamedov's position was further strengthened on 26 December 2006, when an extraordinary session of the Halk Maslahaty amended the constitution to allow the acting president to run, along with five other candidates, for the presidency on 11 February 2007.

Several international media sources reported widespread rumours that Mr Berdymukhamedov had come to the fore because he was Niyazov's illegitimate son, pointing out a striking physical resemblance between the two men.

Others suspected that the unsubstantiated allegations were circulated to legitimise Mr Berdymukhamedov's succession claims.

Loyalty and reform

At the time of his inauguration, correspondents said Mr Berdymukhamedov's first political actions indicated a move away from the personality cult style of Niyazov.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov
Mr Berdymukhamedov has signed major gas deals with Russia

One of his first decrees was to reintroduce foreign languages to the school curriculum and extend the number of years Turkmen children should stay in school.

He also announced the opening of internet cafes in Ashgabat. Under Niyazov, access to the internet had been strictly controlled.

In March 2007, Mr Berdymukhamedov reversed one of his predecessor's most unpopular decisions by restoring pensions to more than 100,000 elderly citizens.

The new Code of Social Guarantees introduced state child and maternity benefits and increased payments to families of war veterans to one million manat ($40) .

In another sign of change, Mr Berdymukhamedov released thousands of prisoners, including some government officials jailed by Niyazov.

Gas diplomacy

Mr Berdymukhamedov has also made efforts to improve Turkmenistan's foreign relations, mainly by utilising the country's abundant gas supplies.

In May 2007 he signed a landmark deal with Russia ensuring that most of Turkmenistan's gas supplies would flow through Russia for the foreseeable future, going against US and EU proposals for a pipe to be built under the Caspian Sea, avoiding Russian control.

Mr Berdymukhamedov has also overseen attempts to attract greater numbers of tourists to Turkmenistan, including the building of a multi-billion dollar tourist resort on the Caspian Sea.

However, traces of Niyazov's style can still be seen on occasions. In December Berdymukhamedov ordered the removal of satellite dishes from houses in Ashgabat, saying they were "ugly".

Human rights groups have also criticised Mr Berdymukhamedov for his tight control of the media in Turkmenistan and the lack of political diversity.

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