Turkmenistan's authoritarian leader assures OSCE he will retire in 2009

Turkmenistan's longtime authoritarian leader assured the head of Europe's leading security organization Wednesday that he would not seek another term as president of the Central Asian country, despite being named president-for-life by the legislature.

Dimitrij Rupel, the chairman-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said President Saparmurat Niyazov assured him that several other candidates would be running in presidential elections in 2009.

"I have asked the president whether he would be a candidate in the elections of 2009, and he said no," Rupel said.

Niyazov, 65, has ruled this natural gas-rich ex-Soviet republic since 1985 and has created a vast cult of personality. He tolerates no dissent.

Lawmakers declared Niyazov president for life in 1999, but Niyazov claimed he rejected the idea two years later. Since then, he has given several timelines for presidential polls, including one in 2009.

Rupel also said he asked Niyazov to do more to protect human rights and allow non-governmental organizations, saying that a strong civil society could promote stability and democratic development.

Despite vast natural gas reserves, Turkmenistan remains a largely impoverished country and is the most repressive and isolated of the five ex-Soviet Central Asian states.

Associated Press

On the photo: President of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov "Turkmenbashi"

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