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, put up 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 benefit’s 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 has said. “And so, I will listen to the opinion of the people and do as they choose.”
It might scream “crazy dictator” 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.
Turkmenistan’s stifling climate for human rights has received more attention lately due to the coronavirus pandemic, in