FOCUS: Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov

Natalie Sherman
Staff Writer

On July 24, 2019, Aslan Rubaev, the director of the Russia-based Center for Monitoring Eurasian Problems, came on the air to announce the death of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the president of Turkmenistan. 

Radio Free Europe reports that the announcement came after a week in which there had been no announcements from or news about him, which is highly unusual. This announcement began an avalanche of false reports about the president’s death.

To dispel the rumors of his death, Berdymukhamedov appeared on state television in a series of videos of himself driving a rally car, riding a bike, shooting a gun, and driving in circles near the edge of the famous Hell’s Gate Crater, a natural gas deposit that has been on fire since 1971. 

In 2017, a video of Berdymukhamedov was shown firing at a target and throwing knives with extreme accuracy while military men watched in astonishment and clapped. The video drew criticism both within and outside the country because of its objective absurdity.

The video is reportedly an attempt to demonstrate his military genius to make the people of Turkmenistan feel safer amid reports of Islamic State activity on the Turkmen side of the Turkmen-Afghan border. A Turkmen opposition website, The Chronicles of Turkmenistan, edited the video and set it to the music of the Arnold Schwarzeneggar movie Commando, earning Berdymukhamedov the title of “Turkmenator.”

This exhibitionism and strong-man persona are hardly out of character for Berdymukhamedov, nor for the Eurasian region. As ridiculous as the actions of Berdymukhamedov may seem, he is not harmless. Turkmenistan is formally referred to as a super-presidential republic, with all its key powers given to the president. 

Berdymukhamedov rules what is considered one of the world’s most repressive countries and enacts extraordinarily strict emigration laws. In order to leave, citizens must obtain a special exit visa, and citizens under forty years of age are not permitted to leave at all.

Given the economic situation in Turkmenistan, these strict rules are presumed to be the only thing standing in the way of a mass exodus from the country. 112.international reported that Turkmenistan frequently suffers from food shortages, and it is experiencing hyperinflation of about 290 percent of their GDP.

Despite the difficult economic situation, Berdymukhamedov is supposed to have won Turkmenistan’s presidential elections with 98 percent of the vote in 2017. Such numbers are to be expected in Turkmenistan. Niyazov once won an election with 99.9 percent of the vote. Regardless of the outcome, the Commonwealth of Independent States reviewed the results and claimed to find no irregularities.

The next leader of Turkmenistan is believed to be Berdymukhamedov’s son Serdar, who recently became a regional governor. Turkmenistan is frequently compared to North Korea and establishing a line of succession will increase the similarities. It also seems that if Serdar does inherit the role of president from his father that such living conditions will continue in Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan was ranked by Freedom House as the world’s fifth-most authoritarian state, directly below North Korea. Though he has been ruling for over a decade, Berdymukhamedov came to power after the death of Turkmenistan’s previous authoritarian ruler, Saparamurat Niyazov, who was referred to as the “father of the nation.” 

Niyazov ruled with a “cult of personality” and thought of himself as a god. Berdymukhamedov had large shoes to fill, but in his thirteen-year-long rule, he has proven that he intends to be venerated like his predecessor.

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