Two days after the funeral of Turkmenistan's President-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov, the streets of Ashgabat are quiet and business goes on as normal.
On December 26, the 2,507-member People's Council, or Halk Maslakhaty, which is Turkmenistan's highest legislative entity, set February 11 as the date for a special presidential election. The council also lifted a ban on Acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's ability to run in the election. Berdymukhamedov's candidacy received the council's unanimous support. At least five other candidates were nominated to run in the election, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.
Most residents are not holding out hope that the special election will be conducted democratically. Long accustomed since Soviet days to major decisions being decided behind closed doors, few people expect that they will have any power in decision-making.
The succession process is surrounded by uncertainty. Niyazov, who governed through a cult of personality, did not designate a political heir. It is widely believed that a fierce power struggle has raged behind the scenes in Ashgabat. But foreigners, along with the overwhelming number of Turkmen, can only guess at what is going on.
In an indicator of the confusion, Nurmuhammed Hanamov, a Turkmen opposition leader in exile, announced that Defense Minister Agageldy Mamedgeldyev, along with approximately 120 government officials and military officers, had been arrested on December 25. However, Mamedgeldyev participated in the People's Council session on December 26.
Since a large share of the world's natural gas supplies are controlled by Turkmenistan, the United States, Russia, China, Turkey, and other important energy partners, are waiting anxiously for news about the country's future. They fear that problems and instability in the country could lead to a cancellation of existing contracts. In an official statement on Turkmen television, acting President Berdymukhamedov gave reassurances that current energy contracts would be honored.
"We certainly are hoping for a peaceful and stable transition...to a government that will try to provide the justice, democracy and prosperity that the people of Turkmenistan deserve," said Richard Boucher, the US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, who represented the United States at Niyazov's funeral.
Many foreign observers in Ashgabat see Berdymukhamedov as well positioned to succeed Niyazov. Not only did Berdymukhamedov manage to step into the former President's shoes immediately after his death by assuming the duties of planning the late leader's funeral, he did so in a way that defied the country's constitution and eliminated his closest competitors. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Berdymukhamedov is unknown to most Turkmen citizens, but he has been an important player behind the scenes since 2001, when he was named deputy chief of the Council of Ministers. A dentist by profession, Berdymukhamedov also holds the title of Minister of Health. In a country not known for the longevity of its cabinet ministers, Berdymukhamedov's staying power is noteworthy. Niyazov kept opposition to his rule to a minimum by constantly firing his rivals and by shuffling around his closest advisors.
A united opposition does not exist. Several former ministers and other government officials who were sacked by Niyazov, including Hanamov, are currently living abroad. These former officials have long attempted to draw attention to human rights abuses under Niyazov's rule and to what is going on inside the country. However, the Turkmen diaspora has no apparent ability to influence domestic political developments.
The most vocal exiled opposition leader has been Avdy Kuliyev, a former Turkmen foreign minister, who resides in Sweden. Kuliyev has announced the intention of representatives of his party, the United Democratic Opposition of Turkmenistan, as well as representatives of the other two opposition groups, Vatan and the Republican Party of Turkmenistan, to return to Turkmenistan. However, their efforts have been blocked by the domestic political elite. Foreign embassies abroad are under orders not to issue any new visas and the Turkmen-Uzbek border has been closed. For now, there appears to be no hope that opposition leaders can return to the country.
Speculation also centers on the late president's son, Murad, who has been living in Austria and is little known inside the country. Russian media outlets have reported that he accumulated gambling debts and may have been involved in illicit activities. When he was named this year to head an official delegation to the United Arab Emirates, some observers saw this as a sign that the elder Niyazov might be trying to groom his son for the presidency. In general, however, Niyazov took care to keep his family - Murad, daughter Irina and wife, Muza - out of the public spotlight.
Outside of the capital, the country's population has been suffering from an almost total information blackout since the president's death. The four Turkmen state television stations have been broadcasting the same 30 minute homage of the president over and over again for the last few days and news bulletins are few and far between. In the absence of news reporting, rumors have been sweeping the country. The most talked about rumor is the possibility that the acting president, Berdymukhamedov, is the illegitimate son of the former president.
Hours after the president's death was announced, new years decorations were taken down in Ashgabat. On the day of the funeral, security was extremely tight throughout the capital. Extra guards were posted along the main city streets. Leading politicians from over 20 countries, including Tajikistan's president, and the prime ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, and Armenia, came to Ashgabat to pay their last respects to the controversial leader. The ceremony was broadcast live on state television and several funeral attendees appeared to be overcome with emotion. Niyazov was buried his native village of Kipchak, which is located 15 miles from Ashgabat.