With the death of President Saparmurat Niazov, a great deal now hangs on whether the various regional elite groupings in Turkmenistan are able work out a compromise power-sharing arrangement among themselves, NBCentralAsia analysts say.
As news of Niazov’s death broke on December 21, Turkmenistan announced a period of national mourning, and closed its borders.
The State Security Council and the cabinet held a joint meeting which appointed deputy prime minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov as acting president.
Under the constitution, that role should automatically have gone to the speaker of the Mejlis or parliament. But the official report of the emergency meeting stated that Ovezgeldy Ataev was not to become acting president, because the prosecutor’s had brought a criminal case against him.
The constitution says that elections should take place within two months. NBCentralAsia analysts say there is no successor lined up to take over, and this combined with the country’s unclear foreign policy and the dearth of civil society means things could go in a number of different directions.
Kazakstan-based political scientist Eduard Poletaev said the neatest outcome would be if a leader or grouping were to emerge from the establishment which took control and demonstrated its ability to maintain order.
But Poletaev warned that the situation could also develop in a more negative direction. “There could be anarchy, as was seen after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Albania in the Nineties,” he said. “People have little confidence in each other because the Turkmenbashi [Niazov] system was based on poisoning the different clan groupings against each other. To keep Turkmenbashi happy, people were even prepared to denounce members of their immediate circle.”
According to Turkmenistan expert Mars Sariev, the role of regional elites is all the more important because there are no other institutions of civil society in place.
He thinks the Ahal regional grouping – to which Niazov belonged - is very likely to find itself in confrontation with the elite of Mary region in the southeast, which is economically powerful. “This struggle will stir up separatist tendencies among other regional elites, too, so a Yugoslav-style break-up is not to be ruled out,” said Sariev.
Other experts on the country predict that the security services could play a key role – they might form a military junta which would serve as a forum for brokering deals between the different regional elites.
Tajigul Begmedova, a human rights activist based abroad, hopes the émigré opposition groups will come together and act, since she doubts the public inside Turkmenistan are prepared to do anything by themselves.
“The opposition, human rights defenders and other activists must unite,” she said. “They must create the conditions in which the nation can choose a leader; they must put forward programmes that give people a choice in the election.”
Meanwhile, those countries that are interested in Turkmenistan’s oil and gas resources will be watching developments with keen interest, even if they are not ready to step in to back the emergence of a new leader. In Poletaev’s view, “Turkmenistan will be like a bride – an attractive widow – with many keen suitors”.
(News Briefing Central Asia draws comment and analysis from a broad range of political observers across the region.)