Acting President Wins Turkmenistan Election to Replace Late Autocrat

Turkmenistan's new president pledged Wednesday to follow the ways of the late autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov, who had kept Turkmens largely isolated during his two decades in power, but also promised changes that include allowing Internet access.

Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov was sworn in at a session of the People's Council, the highest legislative body, a few minutes after the head of the central elections commission announced he had won Sunday's election with nearly 90 percent of the vote.

That poll was the first time Turkmenistan held a presidential election with more than one candidate. But all six candidates were members of the country's only legal political party and Berdymukhamedov has shown no signs of interest in ending Turkmenistan's one-party system.

However, since becoming interim president after Niyazov's Dec. 21 death, Berdymukhamedov has called for changes from the path set by Niyazov, who had fostered an all-encompassing cult of personality.

He repeated those calls in his inauguration speech to the People's Council, including a pledge to allow ordinary Turkmens access to the Internet. Under Niyazov, Internet was available only to officials, journalists and some organizations.

He also promised "development of private ownership and entrepreneurship," educational reforms, and more doctors and hospitals.

As health minister, Berdymukhamedov was responsible for implementing Niyazov's order in 2005 to close all hospitals outside the capital and fire some 15,000 doctors.

Niyazov had kept the country's economy largely under state control and had reduced compulsory education to nine years instead of 10.

Although Berdymukhamedov's proposed reforms would roll back some of Niyazov's policies, he also has pledged to follow the general course set by Niyazov, who called himself Turkmenbashi (Father of All Turkmen).

In his inauguration speech he promised "to dedicate myself to the legacy of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great."

Niyazov remains an overwhelming presence in Turkmenistan some two months after his death. There are statues of him abound, including a golden one in the capital that rotates to follow the sun's path. He renamed months and days of the week after himself and members of his family.

His philosophical book Rukhnama is required reading in schools. Council elders presented Berdymukhamedov with a copy of the Rukhnama at the inauguration. where many council members held up portraits of Niyazov.

Berdymukhamedov's move for changes in Turkmenistan are sure to be watched closely by Russia and the West, both of which have substantial interest in the country because of its enormous natural gas reserves and because of its stability and neutrality in a contentious region — Turkmenistan borders both Iran and Afghanistan.