Turkmenistan’s President is A Wannabe Techno DJ

Jan 13, 2014 at 2:20 PM ET

If you start typing “Berdymukhamedov” into Google—the surname of Turkmenistan’s president—the first suggested result is “Berdymukhamedov personality cult.” The second is his name, with the word “horse.”

Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is a man with a large personality, and he has gone to some effort to dismantle the personality cult surrounding his predecessor, an equally eccentric but even more authoritarian ruler. But Berdymukhamedov has now established his own cult in Turkmen culture. He also really, really loves horses.

The biggest recent news out of this Central Asian state over the weekend was that the president fired the head of the central bank, along with other high-ranking banking and energy chiefs. According to the Associated Press, the reason for the firings were unspecified “flaws in their work,” though Berdymukhamedov had previously reprimanded them for receiving bonuses and demanded they be returned.

Before that news broke, though, most mentions of the Turkmen president on social media so far in 2014 were related to something else entirely: a newly resurfaced video of the man himself performing a DJ set.

It’s not exactly the kind of behavior you’d expect from the dentist-turned-dictator of one of the most corrupt countries in the world (according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index), but it’s exactly the kind of behavior Berdymukhamedov regularly engages in, unbeknownst to most of Western media. We thought we’d take a little dig into his past antics.

Also, we made a gif:

Berdy DJ gif

The state-owned media ran the synth set as a Happy New Year’s message from the leader, though it’s an older video. There are also clips of him performing a guitar solo and singing.

Perhaps the best-known video of him, prior to this, is from April 2013, when he took a spectacular fall from a horse during a race, all caught on tape.

In a rather rash move, security officials lifted up Berdymukhamedov without a stretcher, which could have caused severe spinal injuries. For a full hour after the fall, which took place on April 28, state media weren’t even sure if he was alive. Everyone in the stadium was ordered to stay there until his condition was known.

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Another video of the incident, from a different angle with close-ups:

The very public incident must have been a blow to the carefully cultivated personality Berdymukhamedov has been projecting since he came to power in 2006. He insists that he be called “Arkadag,” meaning Protector or Patron. One anonymous blogger quipped that the horse was simply taking a grandiose bow before the leader of the nation, who apparently secured an $11 million prize for winning that race before the fall. And such jokes do have to remain mostly anonymous, as Turkmenistan has laws on the books that could imprison people for up to 25 years for doubting a decision made by the head of state.

Before you write this country off as another ‘stan with a crazy leader, understand that powerful economic interests are at play in this region. Just last month, Turkmenistan and China got Kyrgyzstan to sign an agreement for the construction of a gas pipeline that would cross that country. The pipeline is worth $2 billion.

The most effective way to establish a personality cult? Put your face everywhere. And that’s what Arkadag has done. He’s on billboards, he’s on the TV, his slightly smiling but mostly serious visage greets visitors to oil and gas conferences in the energy-rich country. There’s even an unofficial custom that newlyweds in Turkmenistan get their picture taken with Berdy’s portrait in the background at least three times, and that these are included in the wedding album.

David James, a multilingual European lawyer who has traveled to Turkmenistan on business, says, “It would be hard to take a picture anywhere [in the country] without the president’s picture in the background.”

“They are everywhere,” he adds. “It seems any and every occasion requires a picture in front of the president’s picture. We took the obligatory photo.”

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From the everyday businessman to the high-profile—Jennifer Lopez found herself in hot water in July 2013 when she serenaded Berdy with a happy birthday song, at an event organized by China National Petroleum Corp., which has business interests in Turkmenistan with the aforementioned pipeline, among others. The Human Rights Foundation promptly released a list of abuses in the country and criticized J. Lo for the performance. She apologized the same day.

What’s most interesting is that Berdy took over for an even quirkier President, Saparmurat Niyazov, who led the country from 1985 through the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991 and until his death in 2006.

A few of his eccentricities:

  • Named himself Türkmenbaşhi, meaning Leader of the Turkmen, and founded the Association of Turkmens of the World
  • Named a city Turkmenbashi
  • Renamed the highest peak in the country, Mount Ayrybaba, to mean “Peak of the Great Saparmurat Turkmenbashi”
  • Disguised himself, sometimes with a fake beard, so he could walk around in public and assess his country in private; he apparently once fooled the interior minister, who didn’t recognize him
  • Had 14,000 statues and busts of his likeness created around the country
  • Changed the calendar months and days of the week to be named after him and members of his family

So, maybe a little narcissistic. But Niyazov didn’t stop there. He wanted to regulate pretty much every aspect of Turkmen citizens’ life, down to facial hair (forbidden) and extracurricular activities (no opera or ballet). He closed down libraries and hospitals, forbade physical education in schools and declared several diseases illegal, as if that counts as eradication or cure. Under Niyazov’s rule, people weren’t lawfully allowed to even mention cholera or AIDS. Lil’ Wayne and Niyazov probably wouldn’t have gotten along for several reasons, but the latter’s ban on gold teeth would certainly be one of them.

In case you think he was all banning and no play, he did establish a national holiday for the celebration of cantaloupes, which he thought to be the nectar of the gods. He even published a book called Saparmurat Turkmenbashi on the Greatness of the Cantaloupe.

Berdymukhamedov has been a little more open, and undone some of Niyazov’s diktats. People can access the internet now from cafés, as long as they have a registered ID card. Prior to his rule, only 5 percent of the country’s 5.173 million people could access the web, meaning a disappointing number of people would have seen his YouTube hits.

“In general, it reminded me of Logan’s Run,” said lawyer James, referring to the ’60s and ’70s sci-fi book and film, “where the population lives in a dystopia, unaware of the outside world. Everything is subsidized in Turkmenistan—housing, food, utilities—presumably to keep the population happy.” The problem is getting a read on the dissenters in the country, who are ignored or silenced. Berdy won re-election in 2012 with over 97 percent of the vote, but no external observers were invited to monitor the election.

These aren’t the sort of tidbits you read about Turkmenistan on CentralAsiaOnline, which is what Eurasia.net calls “the Pentagon’s propaganda outlet.” The budget for that website and others was actually cut from the latest military funding bill.

Turkmenistan as an independent state has only ever had two leaders, who both commanded and demanded huge followings. Eurasia is commanding more attention than ever thanks to Putin, the Sochi Olympics, and the ongoing Euromaidan protests in Ukraine. Between Pentagon web influence ending and a more open Internet, Turkmen citizens and their overseas fans hopefully have a little less propaganda and a little more reporting to look forward to in 2014.