Foreign Policy Blogs

The President Of Turkmenistan Celebrates His Birthday, Niyazov Style.

Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov Photo: AFP/GETTY

One way to spot a dictatorship is by its leader’s personality cult. Central Asia is a region of more than 4 million square kilometers and a population of 62 million inhabitants rife with authoritarianism, despotism, and the cult of personality reminiscent of the Soviet times. Not too long ago, I wrote about Central Asian dictators, but I can’t seem to abandon this train of thought. Recently, there have been new developments that point to a “dictatorship” complex in the region.

Here’s a case in point. This month, the president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, celebrated his 54th birthday by singing a love song that he authored (both lyrics and music) while strumming along on a guitar. “For You, My White Flowers” was aired on national television and also projected onto a giant screen at a concert attended by 3,500 people in the capital Ashgabat, with the audience standing and applauding the head of state during the song. The country’s state television said that the guitar the president used would now be housed in the state museum as a “national asset and great treasure”.

Richard Orange of the Telegraph writes of Berdymukhamedov’s other talents. Last April he impressed his people with a display of accomplished horsemanship, wheeling around the capital’s hippodrome on a prized Akhal-Teke horse. In addition, shortly after taking power in 2006, he performed minor surgery on television, showing off some of the medical skills he learned in his previous career as a dentist. It sounds a lot like the judo-fighting, animal-loving and on stage-performing Putin, doesn’t it?

While not as eccentric as his predecessor- Saparmurat Niyazov renamed the months of the year, banned lip syncing, opera and ballet- the current Turkmen president is clearly a cult personality.

Another symptom of dictatorship is sensitivity to criticism. In May of last year, Lola Karimova, the youngest daughter of the Uzbek president, filed a law suit seeking €30,000 (US$43,000) in damages against a French news website Rue89, claiming that it described her as a “dictator’s daughter” and stated that she paid Monica Bellucci, the Italian actress, €190,000 (US$272,000) to appear at a charity event.

On July 1, 2011, the French court ruled that the article was both fair and true, and could not be taken as a personal attack – the judge found that there was not sufficient evidence for the charge of libel under French law. But the issue of alleged payments to Belluci was not resolved. Ironically, the opposite of what Karimov’s daughter was trying to accomplish became obvious. The trial exposed human rights violations and the brutality with which the regime deals with opposition as two well-known exiled human rights defenders from Uzbekistan testified for the defense.

Authoritarian regimes are never secure and along with the cult of personality other symptoms of a dictatorship are denial, defensiveness, and angry outbursts at critics.



Christya Riedel
Christya Riedel

Christya Riedel graduated cum laude from UCLA with degrees in Political Science (Comparative Politics concentration) and International Development Studies and is currently a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin focusing on Central Asia and Russia. She has traveled, lived and worked in Ukraine, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Central Asia. She speaks fluent Ukrainian and Russian as well as intermediate-high Turkish.