Many observers have called on Turkmenistan to use this election to alter the course of former President Saparmurat Niyazov. Niyazov ruled the country with an iron fist, stamping out dissent and exerting state control over virtually every aspect of society. Niyazov's character and eccentricities were well-known inside Turkmenistan and abroad. But what of Berdymuhkammedov?
"I have listened to the program of Gurbanguly Malikgulyyevich [Berdymuhkammedov]," one young woman in Ashgabat said on election day, February 11. "I liked his promise to introduce five-year studies at universities and 10 years at secondary schools, [and] restoring the curriculum with physical education. It was attractive that he promised to send young people to study abroad."
From Dentist To President
Few voters in Turkmenistan could say much more than that about the new Turkmen president. The 49-year-old dentist emerged from obscurity to be named acting president after the announcement of Niyazov's death on December 21.
Erika Dailey, director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, agrees that little is known about Berdymukhammedov.
"We know certainly some of his professional background," Dailey told RFE/RL. "We know a great deal less about him as a person, as an individual. And professionally, he was...minister of health and simultaneously deputy prime minister, and has one of the longest records of government service in the Niyazov regime."
Berdymukhammedov survived frequent personnel shuffles under Niyazov and appears to have found favor among some of Niyazov's trusted supporters.
Obedient, But 'Tricky'
One man who now lives outside Turkmenistan knew Berdymukhammedov when the new Turkmen leader was studying dentistry. With relatives still living in the country, the man did not want to be identified; but he described Berdymukhammedov as largely unexceptional -- quiet and obedient -- but also "tricky."
Most of what is known about the new Turkmen president comes from his campaign promises. The Turkmenistan Project's Dailey says such pledges might provide some insight into Berdymukhammedov's character.
"I think his stated commitments do probably reflect something of his own personality," she says. "He seems to have identified fairly clearly some of the most unpopular policies that were conducted under Niyazov, including in the education sphere, in the sphere of agriculture, access to information, [and] pensions. So he understood apparently not only what people wanted to see changed first and foremost -- but also how to let people understand that he did understand the situation himself."
Michael Hall, the International Crisis Group's Central Asian project director, said Berdymukhammedov will probably seek to undo some of the damage the late Niyazov did to Turkmenistan during his long rule of the country.
"These promises represent a certain recognition that the course that the previous regime -- the regime of Saparmurat Niyazov -- had really set the country on a path that would ultimately, I think, have been self-destructive," Hall says. "So there may be those within Berdymukhammedov's camp who recognize that Turkmenistan needs reform if it is to survive as a state and if it is indeed to develop."
Looking For Reforms
But Dailey noted that it remains to be seen whether Berdymukhammedov will fulfill his promises -- and that might not depend solely on him.
"The question," Dailey says, "is really much more, 'Will he have both the authority and the political will to implement those changes?'"
The world will certainly learn more about Berdymukhammedov in the coming days. But the fact of new leadership has already raised hopes of change in the way the country is administered -- as well as of some sign of reform.
(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)
A billboard in Ashgabat with portraits of the candidates in the February 11 election (OSCE)
SIGNS OF CHANGE? Reporters Without Borders analyst Elsa Vidal and RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merkhat Sharipzhanov led an RFE/RL briefing in Prague about the significance -- or lack thereof -- of Turkmenistan's first-ever competitive presidential election.
LISTENListen to the entire briefing (about 60 minutes):
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