Cults of personality are some of the most notable features of any dictatorship. From the ubiquitous photos of Joseph Stalin in the USSR to the literal deification of North Korea’s leaders, cults of personality have served to give dictators false legitimacy without the need for democratic elections. Vladimir Putin, for example, is known for shirtless photographs depicting him engaging in what he deems to be “macho” activities, such as hunting, fishing, and ice swimming. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro’s regime promotes the continuation of the cult of personality of the country’s late dictator Hugo Chávez by referring to his death as a “transition to immortality,” building altars in his name, and even modifying the Lord’s Prayer to worship Chávez. Dictatorships like Russia and Venezuela rely on these cults of personality to avoid the need of having the genuine support of their people. After all, if you are the father of the nation, or a literal god, then you don’t need free and fair elections to prove your right to rule.
Among the most extreme cults of personality in the world is that of Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, a former dentist and health minister who has ruled over the Central Asian country since 2007. He is well known for the videos of his absurdities which occasionally go viral. In 2017, Berdymukhammedov was mocked as the “Turkmenator” when a video emerged of him strutting his uniform and testing guns at a shooting range while military officials diligently applauded. Other videos — all created by state-owned propaganda channels — show him fishing, lifting weights, cycling, rapping, and DJing parties.
In addition to his videos, Berdymukhammedov also seems to have a particular sense of aesthetics. For instance, he has banned black cars from the capital, Ashgabat, and ordered every new building to be built with white marble simply because he considers the color black unlucky. In 2014, Berdymukhammedov honored himself with a huge gold statue of himself atop a horse, rising above the capital city. He also commissioned a giant golden statue of his favorite breed of dog, wrote a book about his favorite breed of horse, and, most recently, forced every male government official and manager of a major company to shave their head and wear a skullcap in mourning for his deceased father.
Turkmenistan is one of the most closed and isolated countries in the world, but while Berdymukhammedov’s antics occasionally make international news and get mocked by American comedians like Trevor Noah and John Oliver, few people know or care that the human rights situation in Turkmenistan has precipitously deteriorated in recent years. Turkmenistan is a country ruled by a fully authoritarian regime, with no free press, no independent judiciary, no NGOs, no freedom of movement, and no political opposition of any kind. Freedom House reports that “political rights and civil liberties are almost completely denied in practice.” Turkmenistan does not tolerate any kind of political opposition, threatens and harasses the relatives of dissidents abroad, and even arrestsand tortures individuals for exercising their right to freedom of association. In March, Berdymukhammedov won an election with 100% of the vote with the government-controlled media declaring that the election result was “clear evidence of Turkmenistan’s democratic progress and the triumph of decisive reforms carried out by our national leader.”
The viral videos serve their propaganda purpose by hiding the more sinister effects of the cult of personality. The government in Turkmenistan is so focused on maintaining its pristine image that it fails to devote attention to the suffering of its people. Government officials are selected for their loyalty, not their competence, while golden statues and marble buildings replace investments in public infrastructure and poverty relief. Turkmenistan is currently facing a major economic crisis, partly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the government denied the existence of, and partly as a result of years of government mismanagement. Prices of essentials like flour and water continue to rise, and the food shortage is so dire that many towns and cities have resorted to rationing essentials, while people who look homeless or disheveled are kidnapped from the streets and forced to work on state farms. However, in April, instead of responding with relief and reform, the government denied the crisis and banned lines outside stores because they were embarrassing Berdymukhammedov. Additionally, the government also declared an “Epoch of Might and Happiness” in Turkmenistan, as if slogans could distract from the poverty and suffering.
Ultimately, like in any dictatorship, the goal of Berdymukhammedov’s cult of personality is to maintain power and satisfy the former dentist’s craving for acceptance. He must maintain the illusion of peace, prosperity, and popularity if he wants to remain “protector” of Turkmenistan — and pass that title onto his descendents.
Despite their absurdity, the viral videos give Berdymukhammedov a popular persona, focusing international attention on dog festivals and horse breeding. However, they also obscure and whitewash the regime’s sinister crackdown on human rights and its severe economic mismanagement. Laughter should not come at such a steep price.
Alexander Sikorski (@AKSikorski) is a Program and Policy Fellow at the Human Rights Foundation.
Illustration by Mariana Bernardez (@mbgrafiks)
To learn more about the human rights situation in Turkmenistan, read HRF’s Universal Periodic Review Submission of Turkmenistan, our legal petition to the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on behalf of 18 Turkmen who were arbitrarily imprisoned and tortured for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of association, and our open letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres in advance of his 2017 meeting with Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.
This article is part of a series of blog posts about authoritarian regimes. Read our previous blog posts about repression in Saudi Arabia, Viktor Orban’s Hungary, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and internet shutdowns in dictatorships.