Sunday, February 11, 2007

The 99 Percenter

After the first event in its history to vaguely resemble an election, the magnificently named Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is almost certain to become the new president of Turkmenistan. The former dentist, said to be the illegitimate son of the late and colourful dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, was even the explicit choice of the man who runs the country's election commission. Add to that the official claim a barely-believable 99 percent of the population turned out to vote, and it's clear the whole process was about as free and fair as those elections Saddam used to win in Iraq.

This all matters more than you might imagine, because although Turkmenistan hasn't got any hospitals outside the capital city, it does have the world's fifth largest stash of natural gas. It's stuck between Russia and China, and America also takes a close interest. Each would like to bring Turkmenistan and its gas more into their respective spheres of influence. The amusing Mr Berdymukhamedov will probably keep his country more or less as the backward, reclusive, broadly neutral place it is. This suits Russia, which is desperate to maintain its hold over all the former Soviet countries it can. But America would rather see a revolution, as in Ukraine, Georgia and the nearby Kyrgyzstan. Although the lesson of those revolutions is that the path to a pro-Western democracy is difficult and unpredictable, such an event would at least offer the distant prospect of a better future for the people of Turkmenistan. If Mr Berdymukhamedov fails to fill the personality cult left by the death of his rumoured father, there's just a chance it'll happen.

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