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Central Asia braces for a power struggle in Turkmenistan

ALMATY, Kazakhstan—Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic that holds some of the world's largest reserves of natural gas, faces the prospect of a protracted power struggle and instability in the wake of the death of its longtime leader Saparmurat Niyazov, who died on Thursday after 21 years of one-man rule.

All appeared quiet in Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat, on Saturday as Turkmens prepared to bury their eccentric despot on Sunday. A Western diplomat reached by telephone said that restaurants and cafes were closed and the government had ordered all weddings cancelled until after Dec. 30, the end of the national period of mourning.

But analysts cautioned that what stability exists at the moment could quickly unravel as rival factions seek to gain power in a country critical to Europe's fuel supplies. Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic, has the second largest natural gas deposits in the former Soviet Union, after Russia. Those supplies are critical to Europe's growing dependency on fuel from the east to satisfy its energy needs.

Analysts said they believe that a small circle of Niyazov's underlings, led by the country's pervasive security services, has seized power for now. But experts in the country say Niyazov's penchant for surrounding himself with people who would not challenge his leadership has left the country with a weak and ineffectual political elite.

"The best case scenario is some sort of security service `junta,' which will make some political changes but nothing that threatens their hold on power," said Michael Hall, Central Asia director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based security think tank.

"The doomsday one is civil war," he adds. "But between these are a lot of things that can happen."

Analysts say that the region's other authoritarian leaders are watching the Turkmen developments nervously, fearing repercussions in their own countries if the situation there disintegrates.

Niyazov—who referred to himself as "Turkmenbashi," or father of the Turkmens, and who developed an extravagant and bizarre cult of personality—provided no clear means to assure a peaceful political transition.

Tensions surfaced within hours of Niyazov's passing, and the country's constitution was quickly disregarded in selecting a successor. Instead of parliament speaker Ovezgeldy Ataev being named acting president, as is stipulated, Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov—a former dentist and health minister—was appointed.

On Friday, Berdymukhammedov sacked Ataev and announced an investigation against him for immoral and criminal conduct.

The acting president re-assured Western investors that existing oil and gas contracts would not change with a new regime.

Berdymukhammedov also called a meeting for Tuesday of the country's 2,000-member parliament, the People's Council—which until now has served only as a rubber stamp for Niyazov's decrees—to choose a date and candidates for presidential elections.

But longtime observers saw little chance for a democratic vote. Under Niyazov, Turkmenistan was counted among the world's most repressive and isolated regimes and the population has never had any say in their government.

The country's education and health care systems have declined and public participation in civic life has been minimal, said one Western diplomat working in the region, who because of the sensitivity of the issue asked to remain anonymous.

"I don't think that there is going to be any democratic process - that's the least likely scenario," said the diplomat. "I don't think that the Turkmen people have any chance of getting a voice in the matter."

Still, some hold out the hope that the new regime, even if not democratic, will be an improvement over Niyazov's rule.

"They may realize that things can't continue as they did under Niyazov," says ICG's Hall. "But as many of them come from the security services, we have to be clear that these are not revolutionaries by any stretch of the imagination."

Two wild cards exist that could further complicate how events play out in Turkmenistan: Niyazov's own estranged family and the country's opposition in exile.

Niyazov had two children, a son, Murad, and a daughter, Irina, who live outside of Turkmenistan. Since the Turkmen ruler's death however, there's been speculation that either might be the focus of some sort of dynastic succession.

Nurmuhammet Hanamov, a leader of the Republican Party of Turkmenistan and a former ambassador to Turkey and Israel, said that opposition members have informed U.S. officials of their wish to return to the country.

His group however was "not going to rush," he said by telephone from Vienna.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): TURKMEN MAP

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