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Space Sends Congratulations To Turkmen President

Turkmen-born Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko

Turkmen-born Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko

Turkmenistan's State Information Service said that following President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's inauguration for a second term in office on February 17, he received congratulations from "leaders of a number of countries."

According to the service, those who sent congratulatory messages included Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Uzbek leader Islam Karimov, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, and Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev.

None of the luminaries were in Turkmenistan for the inauguration and no other heads of state were reported to have attended the ceremony either.

The messages from the Ukrainian, Azerbaijani, and Turkish leaders were perhaps not so surprising since all those countries are either involved in potential gas-export projects with Turkmenistan or hope to receive Turkmen natural gas.

Nonetheless, Berdymukhammedov also received well wishes from outer space when Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, who was born in Charjoi (now Turkmenabat), Turkmenistan, called from the International Space Station to offer congratulations on his being reelected.

The pro-government website quoted Kononenko as saying, "I am glad for the opportunity to congratulate you on your election to a second term as president of Turkmenistan."

Kononenko said, "it has always been important for me personally to know what is happening in a country, which for me, is my homeland -- Turkmenistan." Kononenko's video message was broadcast on Turkmen state television.

Berdymukhammedov personally gave Kononenko the "President's Star" award after his first space mission.

Another Dubious Amnesty

To mark the occasion of his inauguration for another term, Berdymukhammedov declared an amnesty for convicts, though it was unclear how many inmates would benefit from this.

Such amnesties have become a standard in Turkmenistan since 1999. The largest amnesty was in 2002 when some 16,200 inmates convicted of minor crimes were freed.

Amnesties last year came in August, at the end of Ramadan, when some 3,700 prisoners were released, in October when some 1,700 were set free to mark Turkmenistan's 20th anniversary of independence and in December when 750 more were let out of prison to mark the Day of Neutrality, which commemorates Turkmenistan's receiving official neutral status from the UN in 1995.

Residents of Turkmenistan have told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service such amnesties are invariably accompanied by a rise in crime.

Political opposition figures have never been released under these amnesties.

Berdymukhammedov was first elected Turkmenistan's president in February 2007, less than two months after the country's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, died.

The 2007 poll was only the second time since Turkmenistan became independent in late 1991 that the country held a presidential election and the first time it held an election with more than one candidate competing.

On February 12, Berdymukhammedov won his second term in office, easily defeating the seven other little-known candidates running in the election.

According to Turkmen election officials, 96.7 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in this month's poll, of which 97.14 percent supported Berdymukhammedov.

With agency reports