Turkmen authoritarian leader sworn in for new term

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By ALEXANDER VERSHININ, Associated Press

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (AP) — Turkmenistan's authoritarian president was sworn in Friday for a second term during a lavish ceremony filled with adulation for the man increasingly referred to as the "protector" of this tightly controlled, resource-rich nation.

Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov won the recent presidential election with 97 percent of the vote. The opposition candidates were mere tokens — several of them praised the incumbent during the race.

What Berdymukhamedov does with Turkmenistan during this second, five-year term is the subject of avid interest from the West, Russia and China because of the Central Asian state's natural gas reserves, estimated to be the world's fourth-largest.

Berdymukhamedov first came to power after the 2006 death of Saparmurat Niyazov. Although he has diluted much of the cult of personality established around Niyazov, his promises of political reform in the ex-Soviet state have been largely unmet.

Still, at a government meeting this week, Berdymukhamedov reaffirmed vows that he would install a multiparty democracy and develop a civil society.

State media meanwhile have taken to referring to the president as Arkadag — Turkmen for "protector" — a moniker reminiscent of Niyazov's title of Turkmenbashi, or "Father of the Turkmen."

Some 3,000 people in the capital, Ashgabat, attended Berdymukhamedov's inauguration. As the head of the election commission again announced the final election results at the start of the ceremony, people in the hall interrupted him twice, rising to their feet chanting: "Hail the Hero, Hail Arkadag."

Berdymukhamedov performed the swearing-in against the backdrop of a gigantic carpet inscribed with one of his own slogans: "The government is for the people."

After the inauguration, Berdymukhamedov gave a brief speech in which he promised to carry out reforms aimed at improving well-being in the country.

The ceremony ended with a concert of songs, many of which were dedicated to Berdymukhamedov and referred to him repeatedly as "Arkadag."

During the performance of a traditional Turkmen song, a giant television screen onstage showed pre-recorded footage of Berdymukhamedov playing a keyboard standing up and singing along.

Turkmenistan is set to hold parliamentary elections next year. The toothless rubber stamp legislature is occupied solely by the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, which is the only legally registered party in the country.

Berdymukhamedov has suggested a new party might be created to represent agrarian interests. That party, too, would almost certainly be tightly controlled by the state.

While it is hard to gauge the president's genuine level of popularity in country where no independent media is allowed to operate and dissent is brutally stamped, discontent is greatly tempered by generous state subsidies enabled by the country's vast energy revenues.

Household gas, water and electricity are all provided free. Families also receive monthly rations of salt.

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Associated Press writer Peter Leonard in Almaty, Kazakhstan, contributed to this report.

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