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Turkmenistan Sets February 11 for New Presidential Election


Turkmenistan's top legislative body says a presidential election will be held on February 11 to select a successor to longtime authoritarian leader Saparmurat Niyazov, who died last week. The People's Council will also select candidates for the election, amid opposition protests. Bill Gasperini has more for VOA from Moscow.

The date was decided during an extraordinary gathering of the People's Council, which is made up of 2,500 members including tribal and clan leaders from around the former Soviet republic.

Acting President Gurbungali Berdymukhamedov had earlier announced that the election will be held "on a democratic basis laid by the great leader", a reference to the late Saparmurat Niyazov.

The 66-year-old former Communist boss died last week of a heart attack after ruling the mostly desert nation for over 20 years.

The eccentric leader established an extraordinary personality cult around himself and ruthlessly suppressed an opposition.

And there was little sign during Tuesday's council meeting that much had changed.

Turkmen opposition figures who have long lived in exile say they intend to return and want to field their own candidate.

However none has been able to cross the border into Turkmenistan so far.

Turkmenistan has only one legal political party and Acting President Berdymukhamedov is seen as likely to win the February vote.

He has long served as deputy prime minister. But within hours of Mr. Niyazov's death, Mr. Berdymukhamedov announced he would become acting president even though the constitution states the parliament speaker should do that.

Instead, the parliament speaker has had a criminal case opened against him, giving rise to speculation of an internal power struggle in the isolated nation of five million.

Dzhmurad Kyamov, who works with the Organization for Human Rights of the Turkmen People, says change can only come if outside powers such as the United States, European nations or even Russia put pressure on the current leadership.

The stakes are high given that Turkmenistan has vast reserves of oil and especially natural gas.

The country also has a strategic position in Central Asia, sharing borders both with Iran and Afghanistan.