Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow—taking a note from Trump, Kim, and Putin—has been distracting us from human rights violations with puppies, horses, and a viral rap video.
Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow has always been an authoritarian oddball, but recently his attempts to curry public favor have ventured into the bizarre. While Berdimuhamedow has governed the isolated country for the past 12 years, it seems 2019 is the year he’s determined to center himself on the global stage as a cult of personality figure to rival North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
Last month, Turkmenistan’s official media team released a video of the dentist turned dictator cycling around a shooting range, aiming handgun fire at human-shaped targets to the applause of a small, but enthusiastic, audience of admiring soldiers. Back in April, Berdimuhamedow and his grandson released a music video dedicated to the leader’s beloved horse. The track begins with a Euro-pop rap from the 61-year-old equestrian fan, leading to a soulful chorus with plenty of vocal reverb. With his teenage grandson by his side striking a two-tier keyboard, the horse doesn’t actually appear in the video until a quick flash in the last fifteen seconds, after Berdimuhamedow drops a sample of his favorite pet’s neigh and first bumps his grandson. Throughout the extravaganza, projections on a green screen background show several silhouetted horses striding on the spot, along with turquoise fades, twinkling stars, and fake spotlights.
It’s not totally out of character for Berdimuhamedow to start waxing lyrical about horses. In fact, a recent viral sensation was released to celebrate Turkmenistan’s Day of the Horse and he’s famously penned poems dedicated to his ponies in the past. He’s also banned anyone in the country from changing their horses’ names (all names are logged by the government) and regularly appears in public races where he is always guaranteed first prize. Even when video footage emerged of Berdimuhamedow being thrown off mid-race and swarmed with aids wearing black suits (reportedly, everyone in the stadium was asked to delete any recordings of the incident), Berdimuhamedow was bestowed his rightful honor of first place.
His public persona wavers between benevolent nice guy, gifting puppies to the military and allowing himself to be filmed while writing, staring pensively into the distance while formulating his next sentence, to unhinged tyrant angered by the slightest sign of dissonance.
Recently, we’ve been seeing more of the latter. Despite Berdimuhamedow’s insistence that he’s a great leader of a mighty and prosperous nation, his citizens think otherwise—the regime is accused of a host of egregious human rights violations. A recent census has revealed over a third of the population, that’s 2 million Turkmens, have fled the country. This has left Berdimuhamedow on the defensive and it’s presenting in strange and dangerous ways. In May, police were instructed to find evidence that locals were using newspaper as toilet paper—not out of concern for the basic sanitation needs of his citizens, but of worry that images of himself were being soiled.
In the meantime, pension payments haven’t been issued for May and June and the on-going economic crisis is causing hour-long queues at ATMs. Puppies and quirky horse videos won’t change that.