As had been widely anticipated, Turkmenistan’s president has not only won the presidential election, but has done so with a stratospheric majority, despite his nation’s sinking economy.
In light of the intensely authoritarian nature of the country, it is no surprise that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov should have got 97.69 percent of the vote. And the turnout was high too.
“The 97.27 percent turnout indicates a high degree of civic involvement by the population and demonstrates its conscious desire to participate directly in democratic reforms in Turkmenistan,” an election official was quoted as saying by the state news agency.
The figures are grimly comical and news websites run by exiled Turkmens have argued convincingly that they are deeply fraudulent. It is perhaps worth dwelling upon them in passing for the intended symbolism, however.
Berdymukhamedov has, going by the official election figures, become only more popular with every passing election.
In February 2007, in the wake of the sudden death of President Sapamurat Niyazov, a still-diffident Berdymukhamedov was declared the election winner with a relatively modest 89.2 percent of the vote, and a 95 percent turnout. He bettered that performance by getting 97.14 percent of the vote, with a 96.7 percent turnout, in February 2012.
And since the size of the electorate has, according to official figures, risen from around 2.6 million in 2007 to 3.22 million people registered for this weekend’s vote, so that represents not just a proportional increase in would-be favorability, but also a hefty jump in outright support.
The president of Turkmenistan’s efforts to broaden his public appeal consisted in the past of demonstrating his skills in all fields of human accomplishment, from sport to medicine and music to literature.
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s latest tack appears, quite counterintuitively, to be a full-on embrace of the thug life.
Consider his sudden appearance at the Awaza holiday resort on the Caspian coast, where he was photographed by state posing on his yacht — named after the giant Galkynysh gas field — and dressed like a character out of an Elmore Leonard novel. Still in that worrying Aloha shirt, he took a spin around the resort trailed by his regular mini-army of bodyguards.
The stunt was apparently a fresh attempt to generate some enthusiasm for the doomed tourist resort, which is frequented almost exclusively by government workers on state-paid holidays. Anybody not in a government job would not be able to afford the cost and foreigners are few and far between, not least because Turkmen authorities unaccountably continue to throw up often insurmountable visa barriers.
Berdymukhamedov is clearly aware that his pet project is proving to be a failure, hence his unconvincing popularity-raising antics, but his proposed solutions smack of half-hearted despair.
As Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported, Berdymukhamedov said that it was necessary to develop the “economy” segment of the tourist industry as provide hotel services at low cost. The complex of dachas that existed on the site where Awaza now stands did in fact already fill that niche before being obliterated to make way for the garish and useless current structure.
In a custom fitting to the region, Turkmenistan’s ruler has picked a plum job in government for his only known son, Serdar.
Foreign-based website Alternative News of Turkmenistan, or ANT, reported on July 19 that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov appointed his son to a post in the Foreign Ministry.
Before taking up the job in the Foreign Minstry, Serdar Berdymukhamedov had a management position in the State Agency for Management and Use of Hydrocarbon Resources. That agency, as well as the Oil and Gas Minstry have now been dismantled, however, as part of efforts intended to optimize the country’s energy sector.
Streamlining in one area of government though has been accompanied by expansions elsewhere. Berdymukhamedov senior has created three new departments at the Foreign Ministry to deal with international organizations, legal contracts and “international information,” respectively. ANT reported that Serdar Berdymukhamedov got the nod to head up one of those departments and will now occupy the rank of deputy minister.
Turkmenistan’s Foreign Ministry is headed by Rashid Meredov, one of the long-term survivors in the Cabinet, a fact likely made possible by his experience and the esteem in which he is held by foreign diplomats.
ANT reported that Meredov was tasked with taking Serdar Berdymukhamedov under his wing as long ago as spring last year.
The theory the website offers on this job is that Berdymukhamedov is priming the young man for eventual succession.
The president of Turkmenistan has effected a major revamp among officials running the country’s economy in a desperate bid to emerge from a crisis provoked by low global energy commodity prices.
State media reported on April 10 that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov fired the Economy and Development Minister Eldash Sheripov, who had been in his post since July 2015.
Neutral Turkmenistan newspaper reported that other officials dismissed included Trade and Foreign Economic Relations Minister Bayar Abayev and the head of the tax service, Shatlyk Hummedov. They had been in their jobs for five years and two years, respectively.
Berdymukhamedov offered typically vague and ominous motivations for the dismissals.
“There are violations related to unauthorized and non-earmarked spending of budget funds, as well as an unjustifiable expansion in the ranks of management that is slowly evolving in the financial and economic system,” he said.
Without any firm details, it can only be assumed that this is an oblique reference to a problematic cocktail of corruption, nepotism and mismanagement in the departments in question.
In another sign of the grievous state of government’s finances, the long-promised scrapping of generous social benefits is also looming ever closer.
Berdymukhamedov said that the provision of free gas, water and electricity approved in the early post-independence period as a measure to “improve the social condition of the population” had lost its relevance.
“From an economic point of view this is no longer justifiable and it is preventing the transition to a market economy and imposing an additional burden on the budget,” the president said.
The president of Turkmenistan is braced to join the Central Asian club of potential leaders-for-life with proposed changes to the Constitution that will inevitably be approved in October.
Proposed amendments published in Neutral Turkmenistan newspaper on February 15 envision presidential terms being increased to seven years, from the current five, and the 70-year upper age limit for presidential candidates being scrapped.
Such revision to the Constitution are transparently intended to ensure former dentist President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, now 58 years old, can remain in situ as long as he is alive.
The next presidential election had been slated for 2017, but that date will now likely be pushed back to 2019.
Before the amendments can come into force, they will have to be subjected to a public discussion at the Council of Elders in the capital, Ashgabat, later this year. Those events are typically reserved for extolling the president and wild clapping in support of his policies, so the procedure is only a formality.
Berdymukhamedov’s successor was famously, of course, himself named leader-for-life in 1999. That life, as it turned out, wasn’t very long, since Saparmurat Niyazov died of a sudden heart attack in late 2006 at the age of 66.
There are other changes being proposed to the Constitution.
If the president cannot, for one reason or another, acquit his duties, then the role will pass to the speaker of parliament. Elections for a new leader will have to be held no later than 60 days, and the acting president is barred from standing. No changes to the Constitution will be permitted in that period.
The crisp air of autumn has brought out a poetic strain in Turkmenistan’s president, who last week regaled his citizens with some verses.
A poem of four quatrains appeared on October 17 in a front page splash on the Russian language edition of government daily Neutral Turkmenistan.
The lines are accompanied of a photograph of Gurbanguly Berdymukhameov in a blue suit-and-tie combination, stiffly holding his right hand up in a half-wave.
A title in large green letters bears the name of the poem: “Onward! And Only Onward, Land of my Kin — Turkmenistan!”:
Oh beloved Motherland,
You are amity and spring!
Peace — a universal banner,
And a symbol for all!
Upward, forward, onward!
Land of my kin — Turkmenistan!
Onward! And only onward
Land of my kin — Turkmenistan!
Our lives infused with joy,
Oh what times we live in!
And always onward,
Oh nation heroic.
Upward, forward, onward!
Land of my kin — Turkmenistan!
Onward! And only onward
Land of my kin — Turkmenistan!
The composition is not especially ambitious, although it does rhyme in the Russian version at least. That said, Berdymukhamedov rhymes Turkmenistan with Turkmenistan on two separate occasions, so hardly ground-breaking stuff.
Berdymukhamedov has a growing list of written works to his name.
In 2013, he published a novel about his father’s youth called “The Bird of Happiness.” He earlier wrote books on medicinal plants, carpet weaving, horses, history and ethnography.
Exiled Turkmen activists have noted a strange detour during President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s return from New York this week, prompting speculation that he might be unwell.
The Chronicles of Turkmenistan website said a keen-eyed reader scouring planespotter resource FlightRadar24 noted that Berdymukhamedov’s plane had stopped off in Munich, Germany, on September 26 instead of heading straight to Ashgabat.
That was enough to prompt opposition site Gundogar.org to speculate that the president had stopped off for medical consultations precipitated by a health scare.
According to his official schedule, Berdymukhamedov was due to travel on September 24-27 to take part in the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly.
As it happens, Berdymukhamedov’s speech before the General Assembly included a passage on health and on the need to promote healthy lifestyles.
The plot thickened further when BBC Monitoring, a service that closely watches media output across Central Asia, noted that state television station Altyn Asyr failed to report on the president’s regular Monday government meeting this week.
“Instead, its flagship evening news bulletin carried a report recapping the main events of last week,” BBC Monitoring said in a report summing up news from September 28.
That Berdymukhamedov is in poor health is always possible, although state media tirelessly rams home the message that the president is a superior sporting specimen.
The Munich connection is an intriguing one, however.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on June 29 got a public park named after him to mark his 58th birthday.
What birthday present do you get for the man who has everything?
In Turkmenistan, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on June 29 got a public park named after him to mark his 58th.
It was a fun day, for the president. As by tradition, Berdymukhamedov was congratulated by his deputy prime ministers and foreign business community representatives, who always seize any opportunity to curry favor.
The opening ceremony came in the evening. The park in the capital, Ashgabat, has been called Arkadag, the Turkmen word for “protector,” which is how the president is known in state media.
Officials have said the park was built at the urging of the general public. This formulation has become the norm used as an apparent justification for the cult of adulation accumulating around Berdymukhamedov.
Last month, a gold-leafed statue of the president atop a horse was unveiled to much marshaled revelry.
Thousands of people carrying flags and banners stood for several hours under punishing 40 degree Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) heat ahead of the park opening. Some resourceful female teachers sheltered from the sun under umbrellas, although that did little to mitigate the intense discomfort.
The inauguration was prefaced by a solemn procession along a downtown avenue by the venerable grey-bearded village elders that typically attend such events. They were accompanied by employees of art and culture institutions and many local residents and young people.
Notwithstanding the heat, government workers did the long walk in exhausting heat in their black suits and long national dresses, energetically waving flags and balloons all the while. Smart formal appearance and scenes of jubilation are a must for the sake of the television pictures.
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.)