AHSGABAT - Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow is following the path of his late predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in 2006. Just like the former Turkmenbashi (Leader of Turkmens), he is driven by delusions of grandeur and loves to break records: the Central Asian state has the biggest Ferris wheel in the world, the longest handmade rug, the highest flag pole in the world (133 meters high). He even got French construction company Bouygues to build a gigantic 70,000 m² presidential palace which features a white marble palace topped by five golden domes.
Berdimuhamedow has decided that Ashgabat would be the most beautiful city in the world. In 2011, he inaugurated a 60,000 m² “Palace of Happiness” dedicated to wedding ceremonies, which cost more than 100 million euros. The 80 meter-tall building, covered in white marble and pink granite and crowned by a globe measuring 32 meters in diameter representing the map of Turkmenistan, overlooks the city.
Happy birthday, Mr President
Re-elected last February with 97.14 percent of the votes, the 54 year-old former dentist has also imposed a strong cult of personality over his people. Portraits of Berdimuhamedow are replacing those of the late leader at every street corner while statues of his father and grand father are being constructed all over the country. Last February, a military unit and a museum were dedicated to the memory of his beloved father as a reward for having such a son who is “so faithful to his people.”
For his 50th birthday, he auto-proclaimed himself Arkadag (Patron), the highest title in Turkmenistan and wore a diamond necklace that weighed nearly one kilo. His books about medicine and horses top the bestseller list. The President even rewarded the Lebap regional government with a Cadillac after its farmers delivered a record grain crop.
Yet behind this act of generosity lies a darker reality: Berdimuhamedow runs the former Soviet republic with an iron fist. During his first election in 2007, he had raised hopes by promising the country would open up. He put an end to some of the most eccentric aspects of the previous regime, and got rid of the one-party system.
He reopened theatres, cinemas, circuses and opera houses, which had been banned by Niyazov, who had also renamed days of the week and months in his honor and banned news reporters and anchors from wearing makeup on tv.
Yet he has done nothing for freedom of expression. Internet is under surveillance, Facebook is blacklisted, the media are tightly controlled and jails are full.