The country has endured two attention-seeking narcissists, but that could change
You’d be forgiven for thinking that, at the comparatively young age of 64, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan still had a good few years of dictatorial activity left in him. He is after all only four years younger than Xi Jinping and five years younger than Vladimir Putin, neither of whom show any signs of slowing down, and a full 16 years younger than Fidel Castro was when he retired after nearly 50 years of calling the shots in Cuba.
Yet this week Berdymukhamedov (who goes by the modest title of Arkadag — “protector”) caught both his own citizenry and Central Asia watchers off guard by calling for a snap election. It was time, he said, for “young leaders” to take over.
Admittedly, the young leader the Arkadag has in mind is his own son, Serdar Berdymukhamedov, but the announcement was still surprising, not least because the Turkmen president has long revelled in the perks that his elevated status affords him. In contrast to his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov — a tormented narcissist who lost his entire family in an earthquake and subsequently authored a quasi-religious text while renaming bread after his dead mother — Berdymukhamedov is a simple soul. A dentist by training, he has put his name to books about horses and tea drinking, while pursuing such hobbies as equestrianism, shooting and rapping with his grandson.
Yet the date for the election is set (March 12th) and a fake opposition candidate has been found. Berdymukhamedov, meanwhile, appears to have been grooming his son for the job for some time. Whereas he became president unexpectedly after Niyazov dropped dead in 2006, the 40-year-old Serdar has enjoyed an apprenticeship that has seen him work at the Turkmen embassy in Moscow while studying at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy, before landing top jobs in the energy and foreign ministries.
His election to the Turkmen parliament in 2016 was followed by a dizzying array of roles culminating in his appointment as deputy prime minister (there is no prime minister in Turkmenistan as the president is head of the cabinet). Berdymukhamedov Jr. has since served as his father’s representative in foreign lands, and demonstrated the heights of filial piety when he suffered through the recent Glasgow Climate Change Conference in the Arkadag’s stead, even delivering a boring speech of his own in English.
As for why Berdymukhamedov is stepping down now, we can only speculate (and it should be noted that he intends to hang around as chairman of the parliament’s upper chamber). Perhaps he is ill; he is only two years younger than Niyazov was when he died. Perhaps he doesn’t want to deal with rampant inflation and a troubled economy. Recent events in neighbouring Kazakhstan have demonstrated the perils of sticking around for too long and the importance of keeping power in the family. Had “Elibasy” Nursultan Nazerbayev simply conferred the presidency on one of his daughters or sons-in-law in 2019 instead of giving it to a political acolyte, he would surely not be in the situation he is now — putting out a hostage video statement in support of the regime that is steadily dismantling his legacy.
As for Serdar Berdymukhamedov, little is known about him other than that he is bad at riding horses and quite dreary in comparison to his dad. A change of rulers is the joy of fools — so goes the Romanian proverb. Even so, it is hard not to think that for the Turkmen, after 30 years of gold statues, and not one but two attention-seeking narcissists spouting poetry and singing songs, a dull dictator might come as something of a relief.