The presidential race track in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Photo: AFP / PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE

Inside the Weird, Opulent World of Turkmenistan’s Dentist-DJ Dictator

“This is a repressive, totalitarian regime that doesn’t care about what the United Nations or the rest of the world may think of it.”
November 19, 2020, 10:30am

With the title of Protector, Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow is all about big, bombastic gestures that let you know he’s in charge. Most recently he ordered a 20-foot gold statue of his favorite dog – a local Alabay breed – erected in the capital Ashgabat. 

“Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow is a megalomaniac,” political scientist Luca Anceschi, also a senior lecturer in Central Asian studies at the University of Glasgow told VICE World News. “This is a guy who wants to be seen as an untouchable demigod.”

He added that the prime minister’s propaganda factory constantly churns out myths to brainwash the wider population, while wider-scale corruption funds and benefits the country’s elite in a web of patronage. In 2015, Berdimuhamedow immortalized himself in gold on horseback, holding a dove on top of a column of white marble. His officials insisted that statues are built in response to overwhelming public demand.

“My main goal is to serve the people and the Motherland,” Berdimuhamedow said. “And so, I will listen to the opinion of the people and do as they choose.” 

It might scream crazy dictator to some, but to experts like Anceschi it’s also a testament to a growing personality cult. Berdimuhamedow sits at the top of an authoritarian regime that leaves no room for freedom or dissent.

A video from 2015 that shows the master Turkmen jockey’s infamous fall.

Sharing borders with Iran, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, the gas-rich nation, which is mostly desert, has had a long history of repression - even replacing North Korea in bottom place in the 2019 World Press Freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders. The country remains closed off to all forms of international scrutiny and according to rights groups and critics, press freedom is virtually unheard of - with the president and his ruling inner circle going to extraordinary lengths to stem the flow of information both in and out of the country.

“Berdimuhamedow presides over one of the world’s most repressive governments and imposes punitive restrictions on media and religious freedoms,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. The group has actively documented various violations of international humanitarian law.

Noting aggressive surveillance by the state and the control of print and electronic media, Denber also highlighted the persecution of journalists like Soltan Achilova, an independent correspondent who was harassed, assaulted and robbed by unknown assailants in 2016 and also stopped from boarding a flight to attend a conference abroad. “Journalists should be able to work without being assaulted or detained by police for doing their job,” Denber said. “Achilova’s ordeal was clearly yet another orchestrated attempt to silence critics in the country.” 

According to Denber, independent activists even in exile face threats of government reprisals. Inside the country, dozens forcibly disappeared after closed trials. The regime also restricts foreign travel for its citizens, imposing punitive measures on the media and curtailing religious freedoms.

Not the way anyone should hold a puppy. Credit: MAXIM SHEMETOV / POOL / AFP

Not the way anyone should hold a puppy. Photo: MAXIM SHEMETOV / POOL / AFP

Turkmenistan's stifling climate for human rights has received more attention lately due to the coronavirus pandemic, in which officials spectacularly claimed not to have recorded a single infection, despite neighboring Iran seeing almost 730,000 cases. Berdimuhamedow has even gone as far as banning doctors from diagnosing the virus or saying its name.

The alarming situation was further detailed in a recent report in the Health and Human Rights Journal titled, “COVID-19 in Turkmenistan: No Data, No Health Rights.” 

Aynabat Yaylymova, founder of the non-governmental health care organization Saglyk.org, highlighted the lack of daily updates and testing in the country.

“However, there are reports of more deaths from acute respiratory illnesses than normal, and the autocratic government, known for endemic corruption, puts these down to dust and air pollution,” Yaylymova wrote, adding that many people in the secretive and strictly-controlled country were forced to rely on reports circulated by friends and civil society organizations. “The pandemic and related insecurities arising from fears of the disease and lack of any information are affecting the Turkmen people’s physical and mental health.” She said that the denial of the right to information is normal in a country that has not seen reliable public health data from the government in the last 29 years since it became independent in 1991.

Human Rights Watch also slammed Berdimuhamedow’s handling of the pandemic, saying that his “reckless incompetence” severely compromised the livelihood and well-being of the Turkmen people. “His leadership’s stubborn, baseless denial of COVID-19 cases in the country, which have been raging, the authorities’ coercion of health workers and their failure to provide personal protective equipment (PPE suits), have jeopardized public health,” Denber said. “Their inaction in the face of the economic fallout of the pandemic has drastically exacerbated the country’s pre-existing food crisis, leaving many people unable to buy enough food to feed their families.” 

Berdimuhamedow on horseback. Credit: IGOR SASIN / AFP)

Berdimuhamedow on horseback. Photo: IGOR SASIN / AFP)

Berdimuhamedow has ruled the former Soviet republic since the death of his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006, who curated his own infamous Stalinist cult of personality over his 16-year term in office. He famously renamed months and the days of the week after his relatives and even had his own gold statue that would famously rotate to face the sun. But it didn’t take long for Berdimuhamedow, then a former dentist who later became health minister, to dismantle Niyazov’s personality cult and replace it with his own. 

In a move akin to Roman emperors, he lifted a ban in 2010 and reinstated the traditional big top circus - complete with clowns, fire-eaters, jugglers, lion-tamers and trapeze artists. He rides horses in public (and fell off one in a viral clip), engages in dagger-throwing, car racing and taekwondo. At a 2020 new year’s party, he was seen on camera deejaying at a rave. He also waged a peculiar crackdown on satellite dishes and air-conditioners

Berdimuhamedow’s DJ-ing skills, which you have to see to believe.

When Niyazov died, people thought the regime would evolve. But that didn’t happen in a region where personality cults have proliferated and where leaders want to be adored and respected by citizens to keep them in power.

“Turkmenistan’s regime is not one that cares about its global standings or what the United Nations and the rest of the world may think of it,” Anceschi said. “It is not a crazy country. In all the madness that is often portrayed, one has to understand and be aware of the political context in which the regime operates and there’s sadly no real way of knowing how the people who live there really feel - any kind of independent thinking is oppressed and the only voice we hear is the regime’s.” 

Little is also known about Berdimuhamedow’s private life - he allegedly has a Russian mistress, a nurse he may have met earlier on in his dentistry career. His son Serdar serves as a lieutenant colonel in the Armed Forces. His father and grandfather both have museums and government offices named in their honor. But unlike the ruling Kims in North Korea, experts think that Turkmenistan is unlikely to see a Berdimuhamedow political dynasty because of a lack of unified ideology. 

Berdimuhamedow's 100 foot tribute to cycling. Photo: IGOR SASIN / AFP​

Berdimuhamedow's 100 foot tribute to cycling. Photo: IGOR SASIN / AFP​

Anceschi believes that support for Berdimuhamedow in the country of six million isn’t as wide as people think but still feels that the wider democratic world shouldn’t hold hopes out for change.

“I can’t ever see mass protests happening in Turkmenistan and a revolution is even more unlikely,” he said. “Berdimuhamedow’s power is cemented for now but the economy is known to be doing really badly and I think that there will be a point in which stability is threatened. But with everything in Turkmenistan, there is really no way of knowing.”