Turkmenistan's horse-crazy president has immortalized himself with a massive gold-leaf statue of his likeness mounted on his favorite steed "Akkan" (White Khan), dove in hand, galloping atop a column of white marble that towers nearly 70 feet above the nation's capital.
White doves were released into the sky and soldiers pledged allegiance to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on Monday as the monument was unveiled.Berdymukhamedov claims the extravagant statue was commissioned at the behest of the people of Turkmenistan. "My main goal is to serve the people and the Motherland," he said last year. "And so, I will listen to the opinion of the people and do as they choose."
In commissioning a monument to himself, Berdymukhamedov is following in the footsteps of his predecessor, President Saparmurat Niyazov, who famously built a 250-foot golden statue of himself in the center of the capital Ashgabat that was designed to rotate to always face the sun. Berdymukhamedov had the statue of Niyazov moved to the outskirts of the city when he came to power.
Berdymukhamedov has ruled the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan since Niyazov's death in 2006. Also known as "Turkmenbashi," or "leader of all the Turkmens," Niyazov developed a Stalinist cult of personality over his 16 years in office, famously renaming months and the days of the week after his relatives. The eccentricity was too much even for Berdymukhamedov, who later reversed the move.
"Very little has changed since the death of former dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, and the regime is still one of the harshest in the world," Samuel Carcanague, a researcher and an expert on Central Asia at the French Institute for International and Strategic Research (IRIS), told VICE News.
"Niyazov expanded communism into a cult," Carcanague said. "When he died, people thought the regime would evolve, but the evolution turned out to be incredibly slight."
The cult of personality is not the only pillar of Turkmenistan's regime. The country, sandwiched between Iran and Uzbekistan on the Caspian Sea and bordered by Afghanistan to the east, has large natural gas reserves that provide significant revenue. Prior to his death in 2006, Niyazov promised that citizens would receive free natural gas, electricity, and water until 2030.
"Free gas and the low cost of bread can help guarantee social stability," Carcanague said. "Legend would have it that it's more expensive to buy a pack of matches than to leave the gas on all day."
According to the World Bank, Turkmenistan's annual growth rate has been around 10 percent every year for the last 10 years, and the average monthly income is now comparable to the income of its neighbors in the region.
International rights organizations have denounced the lack of free speech in the authoritarian nation, which functioned as a single-party state until 2012. Amnesty International released a statement in December 2013 ahead of parliamentary elections that described "systematic harassment" opposition groups, "persistent reports of torture" in detention facilities, and "widespread denial of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly."
The country is also at the bottom of Reporters Without Borders 2014 World Press Freedom Index, just ahead of North Korea and Eritrea.
Turkmenistan has an important equestrian heritage and horses have been historically revered in Turkmen culture. Berdymukhamedov has penned several books on the subject of horses, and in April the country's parliament approved a decree giving the leader the title of "national horse-breeder of Turkmenistan," adding to his previous title of "Arkadag," or protector.
But while Berdymukhamedov is known for his love of horses, he is also known for falling off them. In 2013, during a race to mark National Horse Day, the president fell from the saddle and face-planted moments after crossing the finish line. Though dozens of security guards later combed through the crowd, forcing spectators to delete images of the fallen president, footage of the incident still exists.
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