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Hall of infamy: Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow

Central Asia
Hall of Infamy
Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (on the left) gives a puppy to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin
Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (on the left) gives a puppy to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Sochi, Russia. MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS/ALAMY

JOB: President of Turkmenistan

REPUTATION: World’s weirdest dictator

Post-Soviet Turkmenistan has suffered some of the worst political leadership the world has ever seen. Some of it is pretty boilerplate: its two leaders (since independence in 1991) elected with majorities in the high 90s, a succession of seven-year presidential terms, endemic corruption and the ruthless stamping out of any dissent – or any freedoms at all, come to that. Six million Turkmens have been subjected to continuous rule by two autocrats – the current occupant of the presidential palace and his predecessor, the notorious President for Life, Saparmurat Niyazov – that both serve up a comedic cult of personality along with ruthless despotism.

Niyazov, like many leaders following the collapse of communism, was a former apparatchik turned whimsical dictator. He was best known for the 12-metre-tall golden statue of himself, rotating so it always faced the sun. His other quirky policies included banning lip-syncing at public concerts as well as opera, ballet and circuses in 2001 for being ‘decidedly unturkmen-like’. Gerbanguly Berdimuhamedow, riding in on a wave of reform when he started his presidency in 2006, replaced his dead predecessor’s statue with one done in gold leaf of himself astride a giant Akhal-Teke horse (his favourite local breed) soaring 20-metres above the ground on an artificial marble cliff. No speciesist, for all his faults, the 61-year-old former dentist followed it up with a 6-metre golden statue of an Alabay – his favourite home-bred Turkmen variety of the Central Asian shepherd dog. The Alabay is said to represent a spirit of pride and self-confidence, qualities that the noble president ascribes to himself and no doubt would like to instil in his devoted fellow citizens.

The golden statuary may or may not distract the citizenry from their more dreary everyday problems. These include a Covid-19-induced spike in the already high unemployment rate, in deadly combination with a food crisis that has Turkmens lining up for hours and spending an estimated 70 to 80 per cent of their income on food. The image-obsessed government claims the country is passing through an ‘era of greatness and happiness’ and that poverty does not exist.

Meanwhile back at the presidential palace the fun never stops. Berdimuhamedow is, we are told, a master athlete: a champion in everything, whether it be horse or bicycle riding, racing cars or shooting. He even sometimes performs two of these feats at once, as the official film of him blazing away at targets while riding his bicycle attests. He is said to be a model and an inspiration to all young Turkmen soldiers. ‘The Protector’, as he is fondly known, is also a first-class surgeon and a musician to be admired.

But whiners such as Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch seem to have trouble fully embracing these feelgood messages. They object to religious minorities being punished, homosexuality criminalized, and dissenters and troublemakers mysteriously disappeared into the prison system with no contact with their families or the outside world. Journalists reporting on the country’s out-of-control Covid-19 pandemic are also likely to end up in the crowbar hotel.

China is beginning to swing a lot of weight in Turkmenistan – particularly with an eye to the large amount of climate-destroying natural gas to be found there. The China National Petroleum Corporation even managed to get Jennifer Lopez to sing happy birthday to Berdimuhamedow back in 2013.

It occurs that these jolly hijinks could be a way of diverting international media coverage from criticism of one of the most self-absorbed, corrupt and brutal regimes in the world. Why concentrate on torture and poverty of the slightly less than 3 million Turkmens (the government claims a population twice this) when coverage of idiotic high-wire acts glorifying those in power are much more fun and provide far better headlines?

LOW CUNNING: Unfortunately, while participating in a horse race back in 2013, Berdimuhamedow fell off his mount. He narrowly escaped injury but created a public-relations disaster for secretive Turkmen propaganda operatives. They immediately tried to erase all photos and videos of the event, even seizing computer discs from departing journalists at the airport – to no avail.

SENSE OF HUMOUR: To further Turkmenistan’s prestige, ‘The Protector’ seems committed to gathering as many Guinness World Records as possible. These so far include a number for strange architectural features and ‘the fastest 10 metres on hind legs by a horse’.

Sources: BBC; Human Rights Watch; Institute for War and Peace Reporting; CBC News; The Diplomat; The Guardian; Guinness World Records

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