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Unfulfilled Promises Mark Turkmen President's First Three Years

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov
Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's presidential victory in 2007 ushered in hope among the downtrodden Turkmen people that his predecessor's bizarre and repressive system would be dismantled.

But three years on, those hopes have largely gone unfulfilled, with the average citizen seeing only marginal differences between Berdymukhammedov's leadership and that of Saparmurat Niyazov, the iconic leader known simply as "Turkmenbashi," who reigned for more than 20 years.

Berdymukhammedov officially became president on February 11, 2007, less than two months after taking over in an acting capacity following Niyazov's death sudden death of heart failure.

The new president appeared to start well, although some would argue that virtually any changes would look democratic in comparison to the "president for life" path Niyazov had taken.

Out Of The Blocks

Berdymukhammedov quickly made good on some campaign promises. He restored the mandatory number of school years to 10, a reversal of Niyazov's institution of a nine-year curriculum that had widely been seen as damaging to the country's education system. Berdymukhammedov, a dentist by profession, rehired medical workers and rebuilt a health-care system Niyazov considered so unimportant that he had cut the majority of medical personnel and closed scores of clinics. The new president also lifted a requirement that all Turkmen citizens be fluent in the teachings of the "Ruhnama," Niyazov's spiritual guidebook.

At the one-year mark, Berdymukhammedov spoke confidently about his government's progress, saying a policy of "the state is for the people" was being realized. "This slogan found its implementation in my speeches, decrees, and in all my activities," Berdymukhammedov said, claiming, "Our government is working under this slogan. This slogan should be the foundation of our ideology."

A huge portrait of President Berdymukhammedov beside the horsetrack in the capital, Ashgabat
But it was already becoming clear that other campaign promises, like Internet access for all, and improvements to transportation and communications networks, would only be partially met. And voters also came to the realization that they would not see the major political changes they had envisioned.

The public was given access to the Internet, but only at a few locations at an exorbitant price, and even then only after personal documents were shown to guards overseeing those places. No alternative political parties were recognized, leaving the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (formerly the Communist Party of the Turkmen Soviet Republic) as the country's sole party; nor were any independent media outlets registered. While internal roadside checkpoints were dismantled and it became slightly easier for Turkmen citizens to travel outside the country, the country has not become any more accessible to foreign visitors despite promises of opening the country up to visitors and bringing foreign professors to teach at Turkmen universities.

Bad Omens

Soon after he took office, signs began to emerge that Berdymukhammedov was establishing his own cult of personality, a feature that had made the country famous to the outside world during Turkmenbashi's omnipresent rule.

Berdymukhammedov quietly removed vestiges of the former leader. Streets, factories, and villages named after Turkmenbashi were relabeled. The ubiquitous portraits and statues of Niyazov were dismantled, his picture removed from the upper corner of all newspapers, and his image no longer printed on the country's currency.

WATCH: RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Oguljamal Yazliyeva points out one of the major obstacles to shedding the country's "cult of personality."

Now a new, yet familiar, brand of "hero worship" has taken hold, arguably revealed most strikingly in a public conversation between Berdymukhammedov and the head of Turkmenistan's Central Election Commission, Murat Garriyev, in October 2009.

"On behalf of the entire Turkmen nation, I ask the parliament to award our beloved president the title of The Hero of Turkmenistan," Garriyev proposed. The electoral chief said he was "confident that all people from 5 to 90 years old would support this proposal."

Turkmenbashi Niyazov was also the recipient of numerous state awards, making him one of the very few citizens of Turkmenistan to be so honored.

It is difficult to say which came first in Turkmenistan -- the cult of personality or the culture of sycophancy. But the words of Myratberdi Sopiev, a state official from the south-central Akhal Province, hint at continuity between the previous and current administrations.

In 2004, when Niyazov suggested holding presidential elections for the first time since 1992, Sopiev quickly voiced what he claimed was the opinion of the nation. "Dear people, there cannot even be talk about presidential elections," Sopiev said. Then, turning to Niyazov, he implored, "Our dear leader, our father, you are our president-for-life, so stay! There should not even be discussion [of presidential elections]."

Such fawning expressions of support and loyalty quickly came back into vogue under Niyazov's successor. Just over a year into Berdymukhammedov's presidency, Sopiev was back at it. "Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, president of Turkmenistan, in the short period of his most responsible position has shown that he keeps his word," he asserted before drawing a clear connection between the old and the new: "Since his first days in power, our beloved President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has shown he continues the just policy of national democracy of his predecessor Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great, through his decrees, decisions, and initiatives addressed to the future."

RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Oguljamal Yazliyeva contributed to this report