Moscow looks to constructive partnership with Turkmenistan

( вЂ" Russia is counting on a constructive partnership with Turkmenistan following the election of Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov as the Central Asian republic's new president, the Foreign Ministry said Wednesday.

The People's Council of Turkmenistan, the country's highest legislative body, approved Berdymukhammedov, 49, as the new head of the Turkmen state immediately following the announcement by the Central Election Committee that he won Sunday's presidential election with 89.7% of the vote, reports Trend.

Moscow seeks "to develop close cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual benefit, confident that Russian-Turkmen relations, based on traditions of friendship and mutual respect, will further advance peace and stability in Central Asia," the ministry said in a statement posted on its official Web site.

Russian Prime Minister, who attended the inauguration ceremony, later had a one-on-one meeting with Berdymukhammedov, conveying to him a message of congratulations from the Russian president on his election.

The Central Asian country, which borders on Afghanistan, is the second-largest natural gas producer among former Soviet republics after Russia, and has substantial oil resources.

In his inauguration speech, Berdymukhammedov pledged continuity in foreign and domestic policy.

"Turkmenistan will strictly adhere to all of its international commitments and will continue to fulfill its obligations on energy supplies to foreign markets," he said.

Berdymukhammedov vowed to maintain social benefits for the population. "My nation will continue enjoying the free use of natural gas, electricity, water and table salt. Prices of gasoline, diesel fuel and bread will remain low," the new president said.

A former health minister and deputy prime minister, Berdymukhammedov promised to restore education through the 10th grade, the study of foreign languages and physical education.

The country's educational system has been in steady decline since Turkmenistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Under the rule of the late authoritarian president, Saparmurat Niyazov, the period of education was reduced from 10 to nine years, and subjects deemed unnecessary, such as foreign languages, physical education and art, were discontinued.

Schools were closed for two months every year to allow pupils to harvest cotton, and degrees received outside the country since 1993 were invalidated.

Berdymukhammedov pledged to increase subsidies to polyclinics and build new medical institutions in the country, whose healthcare system has also dramatically deteriorated since it gained independence.

"One of the priorities is to create new jobs," he said. Unemployment in the predominantly Muslim state is estimated at over 60%.

The president of the 10th-largest cotton producer also called for reforms in the agricultural sector. "This issue will be considered at a regular meeting of the People's Council in March," Berdymukhammedov said.

Representatives of 17 states and international organizations, including Russia's Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher, attended the inauguration of the new Turkmen president.

The single-party state held its first alternative presidential election Sunday to replace Niyazov, who died of heart failure in late December 2006.

Six candidates ran for the presidency, but the interim leader was from the start considered the favorite. However, the Turkmen opposition in exile has already said the high voter turnout was falsified by the authorities.

Berdymukhammedov assumed the presidency for a term of five years. According to the Turkmen Constitution, the president of the country also acts as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and the prime minister.

With the coming to power of the new president, the Cabinet resigned in accordance with the Constitution.

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