Were Turkmenistan not home to one of the world's largest reserves of oil and gas and one of modern history's most peculiar former dictators, a presidential election (ElectionGuide.org) would probably pass unnoticed (NYT), like the proverbial tree falling in the wood. But energy analysts say political change in this oil-rich country along the Caspian Sea has important foreign policy ramifications for the United States, Russia, and others in the region. Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan's previous president, ruled with a Stalin-like iron fist to sustain his personality cult: He erected ornate ice palaces in his honor and renamed the month of January (Atlantic) after himself. But his successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, is no democrat either. A former dentist and deputy prime minister, he has called democracy a “tender substance” that cannot be imported (RFE/RL) from outside and has promised to keep Turkmenistan on the path set out by his predecessor. In fifteen years of independence, he boasts, Turkmenistan, unlike most of its post-Soviet neighbors, has experienced “no economic or political shocks."
The tradeoff of such relative stability, however, has been a repressive police state with little regard for human rights or religious freedoms (AP). Political opponents and independent journalists are routinely harassed or jailed. Turkmenistan annually ranks near the bottom of Transparency International's corruption index. And Freedom House has slammed the country for restricting social freedoms, such as banning long hair or beards for men.
Yet signs of progress are in the air. Berdymukhammedov has announced a series of steps to modernize Turkmenistan, including enacting agriculture, pension, and education reforms and easing restrictions on the use of internet. But some experts say nothing has changed in Turkmenistan. The February 11 elections were “blatantly falsified” according to the International Crisis Group. More disturbing, a Turkmen dissident of an exiled political party was arrested on February 21 in Bulgaria, where he awaits extradition (RFE/RL) to Turkmenistan.
Most outsiders think of Turkmenistan as an alternative energy provider to Russia and are nervously watching the direction energy policy may take after the election. The trouble for Turkmenistan is the bulk of its Europe-bound oil and gas goes through pipelines in Russia owned by state-run Gazprom. Katherine Hardin of Cambridge Energy Research Associates says in this Backgrounder that short-term disruptions to Europe's energy supplies are unlikely because of Turkmenistan's economic dependency on energy exports. Plus, Russia and Turkmenistan just signed a three-year deal to continue Turkmen gas deliveries through Russia. But a longer-term concern of Moscow is that a new Turkmen regime may seek to diversify its energy routes (Eurasianet) away from Russia. Iran, Ukraine, and the United States, for example, have sought to increase energy ties with Turkmenistan. China, too, given its growing demand for cheaper energy supplies, has sought to attract Turkmen gas, inking a deal with Ashgabat that would allow Beijing to develop Turkmenistan's Iolotan gas fields.
Some opposition leaders worry the West's thirst for cheap energy may water down its criticism of the new Turkmen government, much like it has toward oil-wealthy regimes in Russia and Saudi Arabia. "I just want to believe that the West is not going to try to make a cynical deal based on the formula: gas in exchange for acceptance of dictatorship (PDF)”, Khudayberdy Orazov, head of the “Fatherland” opposition movement, told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in January.