Interim leader who showed reform inclinations becomes new Turkmenistan president

Turkmenistan's new president took office Wednesday with a pledge to follow the ways of longtime autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov, but also promising changes in a country ruled for decades in an all-encompassing cult of personality.

Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov was sworn in at a session of the People's Council, the highest legislative body, a few minutes after the head of the central elections commission announced he had won Sunday's election nearly 90 percent of the vote.

That poll was the first time Turkmenistan held a presidential election with more than one candidate. But all six candidates were members of the country's only legal political party and Berdymukhamedov has shown no signs of interest in ending Turkmenistan's one-party system.

Click here to see the photo report of the presidential election in Turkmenistan

However, since becoming interim president after Niyazov's Dec. 21 death, Berdymukhamedov has called for changes from the path set by Niyazov, who had fostered an all-encompassing cult of personality in his two decades in power and had kept Turkmens largely isolated.

He repeated those calls in his inauguration speech to the People's Council, including a pledge to allow ordinary Turkmens access to the Internet -- under Niyazov, Internet was available only to officials, journalists and some organizations.

He also promised "development of private ownership and entrepreneurship," educational reforms, and more doctors and hospitals.

Berdymukhamedov himself, as health minister, was responsible for implementing Niyazov's order in 2005 to close all hospitals outside the capital and fire some 15,000 doctors.

Niyazov had kept the country's economy largely under state control and had reduced compulsory education to nine years instead of 10.

Although Berdymukhamedov's proposed reforms would roll back some of Niyazov's policies, he also has pledged to follow the general course set by Niyazov, who dominated the country in a personality cult that included calling himself Turkmenbashi (Father of All Turkmen).

In his inauguration speech he promised "to dedicate myself to the legacy of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great."

Niyazov remains an overwhelming presence in Turkmenistan some two months after his death. Statues of him abound, including a golden one in the capital that rotates to follow the sun's path. He renamed months and days of the week after himself and members of his family, reports AP.

His philosophical book Rukhnama is required reading in schools. Council elders presented Berdymukhamedov with a copy of the Rukhnama at the inauguration, where many council members held up portraits of Niyazov.

Berdymukhamedov's move for changes in Turkmenistan are sure to be watched closely by Russia and the West, both of which have substantial interest in the country because of its enormous natural gas reserves and because of its stability and neutrality in a contentious region -- Turkmenistan borders both Iran and Afghanistan.

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