President Berdimuhamedov: Dentist to Dictator

A guest post by a student from the post-Soviet class…and one I wanted to have up before I do a post later today on something this president has done recently!

After Turkmenbashi’s sudden death to cardiac arrest in 2006, total control over Turkmenistan was up for grabs. Speculation briefly circuited that the new leadership could usher in long overdue democratic reforms, and that the severe oppression of the people would be over.  In reality though, the current president, President Berdimuhamedov, is ruling as a dictator with his own cult of personality.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty features Berdymukhammedov and his cult as part of their “Silly Dictator Stories” (#25 in their series). He’s been featured in this series a lot…

Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov was originally Turkmenbashi’s personal dentist, and was in turn named the Minister of Health in 1997. Berdimuhamedov’s leadership was undemocratic from the start; since the constitution stipulates that the role of acting President should have go to the Chairmen of the People’s Council, Ovegeldy Atayev. Conveniently and suspiciously though, immediately after Turkmenbashi’s death, Atayev was subject to a criminal investigation and was sacked. Once he secured his position as Acting President, Berdimuhamedov further manipulated the constitution to ensure his candidacy in the actual Presidential election.

In the 2007 elections, democratic hope existed as it was the first election with more than one candidate. However, all of the candidates were members of the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, controlled by the President and Berdimuhamedov still won with 89% of the votes. The next presidential elections in 2012 followed the same path with Berdimuhamedov winning 97% of the votes and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) refusing to even acknowledge the elections because of the blatant manipulation and lack of competition. Berdimuhamedov followed Turkmenbashi’s trend and elections remained rigged and merely continued to stroke the President’s ego.

Upon ensuring the Presidency, Berdimuhamedov promised to break from Turkmenbashi’s policies by specifically increasing access to the Internet, undergoing thorough education reform, and increasing pensions. Even though he succeeded in restoring pensions to 100,000 elderly citizens, he failed in increasing Internet access with only 1.6% of the population having access in 2010. Further, the President has proposed many educational reforms such as switching to a 12-year program and instituting paid education, and increasing access to and enrollment in higher education. Despite all of the promises, Berdimuhamedov has only recently implemented a 12-year education program. The new program is the substantial change between Turkmenbashi’s era and Berdimuhamedov’s rule.

There have been further attempts to deconstruct Turkmenbashi’s cult of personality, such as removing a revolving gold statue of Turkmenbashi from the central square in Ashkhabad, reinstating the conventional names for the days of the week and months of the year, and removing Turkmenbashi’s picture from buildings and publications. In breaking down Turkmenbashi’s cult of personality Berdimuhamedov hopes to establish his own personalistic rule that is distinct from Turkmenbashi’s legacy.

In order to actually create a distinct rule, Berdimuhamedov has to simultaneously break down one cult of personality while building up another. The President has removed Turkmenbashi’s Ruhnama from schools but has replaced it with his own spiritual guidebook. Further, Berdimuhamedov has taken on his own national name, Arkadog, meaning “Protector” to create his image as the protector of the Turkmen people. Also following Turkmenbashi’s lead, Berdimuhamedov has instituted ridiculous laws. The most resent rule in a list of new marriage requirements states that newly weds must take their wedding photo with a photo of Berdimuhamedov in the background, essentially making Berdimuhamedov the most powerful photo-bomber on the planet.

The brief time of hope for a turn towards democracy in Turkmenistan has been utterly destroyed. All of President Berdimuhamedov’s changes are just different tactics to build a similar cult of personality to Turkmenbashi. With the change in leaders, Turkmenistan has not experienced any societal improvement and still reigns as one of the top nine worst countries for human rights abuses. The cult of personality developed by Berdimyhamedov, while comical from the outside, is further entrenching corruption and repression without any positive changes in sight.




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