[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 12 March 2007, 00:00 GMT
Cautious hope for Turkmen change
By Natalia Antelava
BBC News

Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov at his inauguration ceremony on 14 February 2007
Mr Berdymukhamedov was inaugurated as president a month ago

For decades, Esenguly, a remote fishing village perched on the Caspian peninsula, has been one of the poorest and most forgotten corners of Turkmenistan.

That is, until the day Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's helicopter descended beside the sea.

The new leader of one of the world's most isolated nations could not have chosen a more remote place for his first presidential visit.

The trip was swift and full of promises.

Mr Berdymukhamedov ordered construction of a new maternity hospital, a new administration building, a new school and a fishing factory.

Telecommunication lines had to be put in, he said, and just before leaving he planted the first tree for the new recreation park.

I think there is a genuine political will to turn this country into a more modern, more educated society
Foreign observer in Ashgabat

All of this was televised, and those watching across Turkmenistan saw that a man who swore to follow in the footsteps of his late predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, was acting distinctly differently.

Gone was the pomposity that accompanied Mr Niyazov's every outing.

There was no grand entourage, no staged performance. Crowds were not ushered to cheer the president; children were not forced to read poems praising the wisdom of the Turkmen leader.

For the nation used to living under one of the world's most autocratic, most eccentric leaders, the event seemed unusually modest and businesslike.

Pervasive legacy

"Somehow he seems much more Soviet," one resident of the capital Ashgabat said about the new president.

Hardly a compliment anywhere else, but in the country which has for the past two decades moved only backwards, it is in fact an expression of hope for a new direction.

President Niyazov (left) with Mr Berdymukhamedov (right) in November 2006
Mr Berdymukhamedov (right) has taken over from Mr Niyazov (left)

Yet it is a cautious, some even argue groundless, optimism.

The legacy of 20 years of Mr Niyazov's regime is hard to underestimate.

Mr Niyazov - or Turkmenbashi, the father of all Turkmens, as he liked to call himself - tolerated no dissent, allowed no freedom and was the country's undisputed, absolute ruler for more than 20 years.

There is little doubt that without the man whose personality cult has been the country's only functioning institution, Turkmenistan will have to change.

But one month on from the election, the extent of the difference Mr Berdymukhamedov will be willing or able to make is still anybody's guess.

A dentist by profession, former health minister Mr Berdymukhamedov was the man who oversaw the implementation of one of Turkmenbashi's most controversial reforms, during which thousands of doctors were sacked and rural hospitals were shut down.

He is a rare survivor of Mr Niyazov's cabinet purges and until now has remained a passionate advocate of his policies.

'Pattern of change'

But since his election, Turkmenistan's new president has also made moves that seem to contradict his promises of loyalty to the late leader.

Mr Berdymukhamedov's first presidential decree extended the number of school years and put foreign languages back on the curriculum.

A poster of the late President Niyazov at independence celebrations in October 2006
President Niyazov had dominated all aspects of Turkmen life

He has talked about reopening rural hospitals and hiring doctors, and he has already lifted restrictions on domestic travel.

He has also promised, although has not yet delivered, access to the internet in the country where currently only 1% of the population can get online.

The impact of all these promises has so far been limited, and on the outside Turkmenistan is hardly different from what it used to be.

Portraits of Mr Niyazov still adorn every building. His statue still revolves following the sun in Ashgabat.

Rukhanama, the book he wrote, is still the cornerstone of the country's education and legal systems. Security is still tight; people are still afraid to speak openly.

"Of course it is unrealistic to expect immediate change," one Ashgabat-based foreign observer said.

"Of course the government has to work within the limits of the system that Mr Niyazov has created. They can't dismiss 20 years of history.

"But I see a definite pattern of change. After all, the president did not have to make promises he made.

"I think there is a genuine political will to turn this country into a more modern, more educated society and I think liberalisation is imminent."

Another Ashgabat resident described the mood as "a sense of awakening".

"More people are starting to watch TV and we are following news - we have expectations now," he said.

Active host

The outside world is watching too, eager for access to Turkmenistan's immense gas reserves.

Foreign powers flocked to the inauguration ceremony that followed Mr Berdymukhamedov's state-managed election.

Turkmenistan's map

Since then, regular delegations from the US, Russia and China have been coming to Ashgabat, eyeing possibilities for access and influence.

So far, Mr Berdymukhamedov has made no public alliances.

He says the country will honour all of its existing energy agreements and consider new possibilities, but the priority is to continue with the policy of neutrality.

Still, he has also been a much more active host than his predecessor, and diplomats in Ashgabat say there is a sense of momentum for establishing the relationships anew.

In his recent interview with Russian-based online magazine Turkmenistan.ru, Mr Berdymukhamedov was asked to name his favourite proverb.

"My father often told me: 'Don't run to a place when you can walk,'" Mr Berdymukhamedov said.

Many hope that despite his proclaimed loyalty to Turkmenistan's past, this means that Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is willing to put his country on a path that could lead to normality.

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific