For the President of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov it’s been a busy year. Aside from running Central Asia’s own hermit kingdom, which according to the Human Rights Watch, “remains one of the world’s most repressive countries”, he manages to find the time for some rather unconventional hobbies. Let’s meet Turkmenistan’s “multi-talented” dictator…
How do you entertain a country that you’ve denied access to free and open communication, banning websites like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and Twitter? Subject your increasingly desperate population to little sing-song of course…
When he’s not off-roading in “mass sport competitions” or horse racing, he’s getting ripped at the gym; when he’s not lifting weights, he’s dropping beats for a synth-heavy rap song he claims to have written with his grandson, Kerimguly:
Not exactly the top priorities you’d expect from a president, but that’s how Berdymukhamedov runs things. Under his rule, Turkmenistan’s rigid control and isolation is second only to North Korea, and Berdymukhamedov’s now limitless presidential term is looking both despotic, and a lot like a D-grade blockbuster.
There’s zero freedom of the press in the country (which is bordered by Iran, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Iran) and when it does report on the President’s happenings, it’s often to show him racing a car (that he built himself!), or singing a rap song (that he wrote!), etc. All of his talents, be it dagger throwing, shooting, or DJ-ing, are heavily curated by the state-funded media.
Also on the list of his extravagant obsessions? As of last January, he’s turned the entire capital of Ashgabat white, impounding all black cars (he drives a green Bugatti, by the way).
He’s also obsessed with breaking the Guinness World Records, such as having the world’s largest ferris wheel, the largest Turkmen carpet, fountain, mural of a star…
We could go on, but we’ll leave you with the weirdest one yet: the President’s 2012 DJ-set, which broke a world record by fitting 4,166 citizens in a yurt to sing his hit song, “Forward Only Forward, My Dear Country Turkmenistan”:
The only candid video we have of him is from a bit of leaked footage from a horse race where he fumbles off his stallion. “If a president falls off a horse and no one sees it, did he actually fall?,” reported AP Press in 2013 about the accident that suddenly made him feel relatable. But Berdymukhamediv doesn’t do relatable. All spectators were searched, and their electronic devices confiscated:
For a hot second, it seemed he might be a progressive leader. He talked about introducing new initiatives to foster the arts in education, restored pensions to 100,000 elderly citizens that were cut under his predecessor, Niyazov (different dictator, same human rights crimes), and loosened travel restrictions. But he razed Niyanov’s monuments and buildings, which were all modelled after Caesar’s Palace, only to replace them with his own. Now, a 24-carat gold-leaf statue of himself stands perched on a 20-metre high marble “cliff”:
He sent out government officials to remove satellite dishes from homes, altered the country’s constitution so that he can rule for life, and rescinded the right to freely surf the web. Homosexual acts are also illegal in Turkmenistan, but he did manage to get Jennifer Lopez to come to his private party and sing him “Happy Birthday” in 2013. The Human Rights Foundation is watching his moves like a hawk — or at least trying to. It’s not easy in a country where any free media advocates are liable to be splashed with acid.
Just ask Stanislav Volkov, who was attacked with acid by the President’s secret service when he started reporting for the Alternative Turkmenistan News, an underground media source that hopes to show the poverty and fear experienced by so many citizens. “All of these new toys, these buildings, parks and roads,” he said, “were supposedly built for the people. They paid for it with their silence.”
“Life goes on in my old city,” he said, “Everyday people struggle to find work to support their families, in conditions of high unemployment and total corruption. According to independent estimates, unemployment in Turkmenistan has reached 60%.” Creating a veneer of social stability is pretty standard for dictators, but Berdymukhamedov has taken it to a whole new level. Forget North Korea, watch this space.