Not that it was ever in doubt, but now it is official: Turkmenistan’s president plans to grow old in power.
As speaker of parliament Akja Nurberdieva explained in remarks televised May 29, the constitutional commission is studying two proposals that will likely end with Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov serving indefinitely.
One provision would scrap the 70-year age limit at which a president can be elected. The other would extend the presidential term from five to seven years.
Under the current constitution, Berdymukhamedov, 57, would have been allowed to run for only three more five-year terms. The next presidential election had been slated for 2017, but that date could be pushed back to 2019.
Who chairs the constitutional commission that will decide on the changes? Why, the president of course.
Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, dispensed with such fiddly legalities in December 1999, when parliament declared him president for life. As it turned out, that was only seven years anyway, as Niyazov dropped dead in 2006.
As has become usual, the impetus for the proposed constitutional reforms is being attributed to public demand.
Another constitutional fix for which people are clamoring, according to Berdymukhamedov, involves provisions for who will take over as caretaker should the serving president be unable to fulfill his duties.
That task should fall to the speaker of parliament, said Berdymukhamedov in the same state television report.
The irony here is that this was already the law before Niyazov’s death. Rules were quickly changed at the behest of the State Security Council to ensure that then-deputy Prime Minister Berdymukhamedov be quickly jostled into power.
Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov solidified his role as the isolated country’s “protector” and leading equestrian on May 25, unveiling the first gold-plated statue of himself.
Officials say the 21-meter statue, cast in bronze and covered in 24-carat gold leaf, was built to satisfy public demand. It is named “The Protector,” for Berdymukhamedov’s adopted title, and features the strongman with his right hand outstretched and a dove perched upon it. Some have ridiculed it for bearing an uncanny resemblance to a statue of Peter the Great in Russia’s second city, St Petersburg.
Berdymukhamedov is not famous for originality. He has persistently built his own cult of personality while dismantling that of Saparmurat Niyazov, the Turkmenbashi, who died in 2006 after scattering golden busts and statues of himself across the gas-rich nation.
Notably, Berdymukhamedov has relegated to the suburbs a statue of Niyazov that rotated to face the sun. He has also gradually phased out Niyazov’s Ruhnama, or “Book of the Soul,” which was required reading in schools and government offices.
In hindsight it is clear that these moves were less about dismantling an old cult and more about making space for a new one.
In recent years Turkmenistan’s pliant and obsequious parliament has bestowed horse-mad Berdymukhamedov with titles such as “Master Jockey-Mentor of Turkmenistan” and “People’s Horse Breeder.” He has also authored a range of books, on horses among other things, and elevated his father, Myalikguli Berdymukhamedov, to the status of a living demigod. (In a nod to Central Asian patriarchy, Myalikguli got a monument before his son – though it is not covered in gold.)
Before the horse races, there was the horse beauty contest, and the show was stolen by a stallion named Neutrality. The horse’s lucky owner netted a Toyota Land Cruiser on behalf of his prized steed.
Turkmenistan’s Day of the Horse has been an important fixture in the Turkmenistan-watchers’ calendar ever since equestrian-in-chief Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov flew over the reins face first immediately after winning a fixed race during the celebration in 2013.
This year festivities were less notable, although the president did manage to net himself another title, and shine a spotlight on an up-and-coming political jockey.
Berdymukhamedov was named the “People’s Horse Breeder” on April 26 to an outpouring of adulation from his cowed public.
“Glory to the protector!” the crowd at Ashgabat’s International Equestrian Sport Complex reportedly chanted, according to AFP.
Unlike “Arkadag” – the “Protector,” which Berdymukhamedov adopted as his official epithet in 2011 – this title is probably one he deserves. Berdymukhamedov has done more than anyone to elevate the cult of the horse in his hermit kingdom. In addition to building an impressive complex outside the capital to house the revered Akhal-Teke breed, he supposedly penned a book on the creatures.
But apart from Berdymukhamedov’s headline-grabbing new title, the standout take away from 2015's Day of the Horse was another racing victory for his teenage grandson, Kerimguly Berdymukhamedov. The younger Berdymukhamedov was also first past the post in a dash to mark the beginning of the autumn horse-riding season last year.
Turkmenistan marked Independence Day this week. While parts of the gas-rich country were experiencing gas shortages, there was no shortage of pomp and prosperity on display in Ashgabat on October 27. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was in attendance and some of the choreography – like an Akhal-Teke horse, his favorite breed, drawn out of Kalashnikovs – must have been especially pleasing to the horse-mad leader.
A photographer in Ashgabat sent EurasiaNet.org these images, which are used with permission.
Turkmenistan marked Horse Day this weekend with another horse race and another win by the country’s horse-mad president.
It was the first time President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has raced publicly since he fell headfirst over his steed last year. That dramatic fall, just after the finish line, was expunged from official video of the event, but leaked out nonetheless. So did video of Berdymukhamedov’s guards carelessly handling his limp body and neck after the fall.
This year, riding lucky number seven, a stallion known as Garahan (“Black Khan”), Berdymukhamedov won, “with an impressive margin over the other riders," the official Turkmenistan.ru online newspaper said.
"The crowd stood up and with a wild, lasting ovation greeted the winner of the race, the president of Turkmenistan, who yet again showed the great mastery of an experienced and brave rider, [with] purpose and the will to win!" the state-run TDH news agency reported on April 26.
The president won a “magnificent rider named Beghan,” Turkmenistan.ru reported, which he gifted to the Galkynysh ("Revival") equestrian club. Second- and third-place winners received SUVs.
After the race, Berdymukhamedov attended the finals of a horse beauty contest. In the “Mr Turkmen Horse” category, Gorkmaz ("Fearless"), a four-year-old stallion, won his owner a Mercedes SUV and trophy, personally delivered by Berdymukhamedov himself.
The name Ashgabat means “City of Love.” But in this amorous-sounding place, lovers are reportedly not free to kiss or hold hands in public.
Cops in Turkmenistan’s capital are now doubling as morality police. "On Ashgabat’s streets, couples are banned from kissing, hugging while seated on a bench, or walking holding hands," The Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported on March 31. "Vigilant police officers are closely watching the moral image of the country's citizens."
Police stopped a young couple walking down the street at night last week, the website said. When the two told suspicious officers they were a married couple living nearby, police demanded they produce not only their passports but also their marriage license.
"Remember, it is banned to hold hands, hug or kiss on the streets. This is a violation of our moral foundations," the website, run by Turkmen exiles from Vienna, quoted a senior officer as saying after he saw the required documents and apologized. Police now inspect the inside of parked cars. "Sometimes couples hide inside the car and are involved in lasciviousness," the officer was quoted as saying.
The Chronicles said it has received many similar reports: “There haven't been cases of detention but young people are threatened with detention, conveyance to a police station, imprisonment, expulsion from university and so on.”
Turkmenistan appears poised to build the one white elephant it's overlooked during a 15-year building spree—a subway system under the streets of its deserted capital city.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov mooted the idea during a meeting with Ukrainian construction magnate Vladimir Petruk in Ashgabat this week. During the meeting, Berdymukhamedov reportedly asked Petruk to study the issue. "Due to the rapid growth of the capital city and increase in its population, the esteemed president drew attention to the need to build a metro," state television announced on February 4.
I can't help but take a bit of credit for the concept, which I used to suggest in jest to anyone who would listen when I lived in Ashgabat. In jest, because Ashgabat's low population, sprawl, earthquakes, and lack of traffic make a subway an imprudent investment.
Petruk apparently raised the idea back in 2005 with Berdymukhamedov's predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov. The plans went nowhere that time, perhaps for good reason.
Estimates of Ashgabat's population generally hover between 700,000 and one million. During the Soviet era, one million was the minimum number required for Moscow’s planners to consider building a metro in a city.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s personality cult has so saturated Turkmenistan that people seem to be fed up with purchasing dictator memorabilia. Sluggish demand for calendars featuring portraits of the president (month after month) is reportedly forcing traders to raise their prices in a bid to minimize losses.
The Chronicles of Turkmenistan reports that this year’s version of the calendar featuring Berdymukhamedov striking a pose on each page have not been selling well. The Chronicles suggests the rising price is further damping demand: For one version of the calendars, the price has risen by 25 percent year-on-year, from 45 manats (approximately $16) to 56 manats ($20).
"They are bought only by bureaucrats and businessmen who keep them in their offices to show their loyalty to the president," the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a website run by exiles in Vienna, explained.
Despite losses, the state-run publisher is still printing desk and wall calendars – along with other mementos including giant posters and icon-like charms for car dashboards – because "propaganda is more important than profit in Turkmenistan.”
Turkmenistan’s copious reserves of natural gas have long afforded residents an unusual luxury: free gas for cooking and heating their homes. But the subsidy encourages waste, which is encapsulated in an anecdote wherein a Turkmen family never bothers turning the gas stove off because it has to pay for matches.
Unsurprisingly, the waste is expensive, perhaps costing the nation of 5 million up to $5 billion a year. So Turkmenistan’s strongman president says homes should be fit with gas meters and consumers will have to start paying.
Speaking at a government meeting on January 17, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov called on local journalists to run a series of television programs and publications on conserving gas, Turkmen state television reported.
"The installation of the meters will allow people to economically consume natural gas, while the maximum payment for using the gas will not create difficulties for the population, for each family," the Associated Press quoted Berdymukhamedov as saying. From AP:
The move comes in the wake of signs that Berdymukhamedov's authoritarian government sees the subsidized domestic energy market as too heavy an economic burden, and is making profitable energy exports a bigger priority. […]
The government has made it clear in recent months the domestic subsidies are too costly. At a conference in October attended by Berdymukhamedov, one delegate publicly announced that free gas to the country's citizens cost Turkmenistan $5 million each year.
Neither Berdymukhamedov nor his government offered any clarification about when the changes would take effect or how much consumers would be charged.
Words are unlikely to do this dizzying video justice. Turkmenistan’s dictator Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who has previously sung for state television, and performed a guitar solo to the delight of his subjects, has added a synthesizer to his musical repertoire.
The video appeared on the state-run Turkmen Owazy television channel’s YouTube page on January 1, but appears to be from last New Year’s.
This being neo-totalitarian Turkmenistan, of course the audience was packed with adoring fans and the stage was adorned with a portrait of Berdymukhamedov.