Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov gallops ahead in race to construct a cult of personality bigger than his predecessor’s, the late dictator Saparmurat Niyazov
Turkmenistan’s equestrian-mad leader has been honoured with a huge monument in the capital city, featuring his likeness atop a golden horse.
Cast in bronze and covered in 24-carat gold leaf, the statue of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov soars over 20 metres from the ground and is perched on an outcrop of white marble cliff.
Berdymukhamedov, who has run the country since 2006 and is accused of presiding over one of the most pervasive personality cults in the world, is widely known as Arkadag, or the patron.
The composition was unveiled in Ashgabat on Monday, to cheers of “Glory to Arkadag!” from assembled students, as white doves and balloons were released into the sky, Reuters reported.
Officially, the monument was commissioned after public clamour.
“My main goal is to serve the people and the motherland. And so, I will listen to the opinion of the people and do as they choose,” said Berdymukhamedov in 2014, in response to the proposal to honour him with a statue.
His image is ubiquitous in the desert nation, with huge portraits adorning billboards and buildings across the country. The gold statue, however, recalls the reign of his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who was known as Turkmenbashi, or leader of all the Turkmens.
Niyazov ensured that gas-rich Turkmenistan remained one of the most isolated countries in the world, ensuring no free media, allowing little foreign travel and enacting a series of decrees that renamed the days of the week and months of the year after himself and members of his family. Hospitals outside the capital were closed, opera and the circus were both banned, and all schools and universities had mandatory classes for studying the Ruhnama, Niyazov’s book. His ministers were forced to perform a gruelling annual “walk of health” through the capital. Niyazov travelled by helicopter and met them at the finishing line.
Berdymukhamedov, who was formerly a dentist and then became Niyazov’s health minister, presided over a very gradual liberalisation when he first came to power after Niyazov’s death, reversing some of the late president’s more eccentric decrees.
In time, however, Berdymukhamedov built up a personality cult that now rivals that of his predecessor.
Niyazov famously had a gold statue of himself erected in the centre of Ashgabat that rotated to face the sun throughout the day. When Berdymukhamedov took over, the monument was moved to the outskirts of the city.
Now, Berdymukhamedov has his own gold monument. In form, if not in execution, it recalls the Bronze Horseman, a monument Catherine the Great had built in St Petersburg to honour Peter the Great.
The Turkmen president is fond of horse-riding and has promoted Turkmenistan’s famous Akhal-Teke breed. He has written a book about the horses and is frequently pictured on horseback or taking part in horse races.
In 2013, during celebrations to mark the Day of the Horse – an official holiday – Berdymukhamedov took a tumble shortly after crossing the finishing line in a race he had won. Amid scenes of confusion, dozens of bodyguards rushed to him, and all those viewing the race in the stadium were searched to make sure they had no footage of the fall when leaving. Video of the fall made it out, though it was never mentioned on local television.
Berdymukhamedov did not ride during this year’s equine day celebrations, which included a horse beauty contest. He was, however, bestowed with the new honorary title of “People’s Horse Breeder”.
At the event, Berdymukhamedov compared Turkmenistan itself to a horse.
“Our country is moving forward with the speed of an Akhal-Teke stallion and I call on you all to move forward and only forward,” he said.