Nobody really knows if Serdar Berdymukhamedow has the makings of a statesman, or indeed if he has ever demonstrated the requisite qualities. For anyone promoted to Provincial Governor within his or her homeland one would presume they already possess the necessary acumen and temperament for such a role but this is Turkmenistan, where nepotism and cronyism abound and the truism that it’s not what you know but who, has never been more pertinent anywhere in the modern era outside of North Korea.
Apparently being groomed for Turkmenistan’s top job when his father, the incumbent President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow finally tires of contrived photo opportunities and not allowing the important business of running a country get in the way of pandering to his ostentatious whims, Serdar can expect his mere surname alone to strike fear into the residents of the country’s Ahal region. Run of the mill decision making will be greeted with levels of obsequiousness commensurate to wishing to gain favour with the heir to the throne, by doing so in effect also staying on the right side of the incumbent president’s notorious capriciousness. Wishing to ensure absolute continuity when he, not the electorate, decides Turkmenistan has sufficiently benefited from his seemingly unlimited wisdom and altruism, the president is obviously taking steps to legitimize his son’s credentials when the fateful day finally arrives.
With little or no tangible political opposition within the country installing Serdar Berdymukhamedow as a regional governor is also designed as a shot across the bows of anyone who may harbour thoughts to exploit a temporary power vacuum during presidential transition. Such a seamless handing over of the reins, and Turkmenistan’s cheque book, prevents any wholesale dissent from ever escalating from a mens rea mindset obviously cognisant within many in such an oppressed, closed, and arguably enslaved country from ever being acted upon. It will also be easy for the president, in his own mind at least, to justify to the country’s population the promotion of his son for election, i.e. ascendancy to the top job, that any offspring of his will be a chip off the old block and have nothing but Turkmenistan’s best intentions at heart.
A skewed mindset that has effectively brainwashed himself believes that the delivery of numerous statuary, a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, a $2 billion falcon-inspired airport terminal building and Ashgabat’s status as the most marbled city in the world has created for the country a legacy by which it goes without saying he will never be forgotten, and one that has benefited the entire nation. Whilst straw polls and vox pops are hardly practical in a country where one must guard against speaking out of turn against the president, it isn’t hard to predict what would be said about the president’s many expensively assembled ‘White Elephant’ projects from those queuing for even the most basic of foodstuffs.
Whether Serdar Berdymukhamedow will, or already has, become infected by the environment in which he has been schooled will manifest itself once, not if, he becomes the former Soviet republic’s third president since secession from Moscow. If times are lean now for many of the country’s population, they won’t be any easier for the dauphin in the future. Without an official Sovereign Wealth Fund – there is though a reported $23 billion squirreled away in several German bank accounts – it seems Turkmenistan will have to resort to selling off the capital’s marble collection once its gas-reserves finally run dry. A need to save for a rainy day, for the country, not the president, enabling a diversification of the economy to withstand and successfully overcome a time when the country is no longer rich in hydrocarbons appears to be conspicuous by its absence. Quite by who, why, and when the billions equivalent to Kyrgyzstan’s Gross National Product were stashed has never been established but the secret, legerdemain-like way such an amount of money left the country suggests it to be more of a ‘gone in to exile’ fund than one from which the country may draw upon in the future.
The tediousness of everyday life running a country has never got in the way of the president’s high-profile, Putin-esque stunts as a military hard man, portraying someone not to be messed with by foes both within and outside Turkmenistan’s many frontiers. It is the porous characteristics of these borders, that for the time being are not being breached by terrorists and refugees from Afghanistan, that concerns the U.S State Department. It is a given that Al-Qaeda and IS will eventually regroup, potentially searching out fresh targets within central Asia and the Middle East; Turkmenistan cannot therefore say with any certainty that it is immune from such an eventuality. The country’s official stance of neutrality will surely be tested should it be proven that it is being used as a corridor by terrorists or is itself at risk of invasion. In such a scenario the United States may wish to bolster the country’s borders, placing at risk Berdymukhamedow’s cautiously cordial relationship with Vladimir Putin. Geographically situated as a broader gateway between Russia, Turkey, and the Arabian Peninsula Turkmenistan could find itself to be ideological battleground that tests the very notion of its neutrality. It is also remains fertile ground for the recruitment by IS of its disaffected younger citizens who haven’t already fled the country to seek more conventional and legitimate forms of employment.
There would therefore seem to be many affairs of state to keep the president occupied, but glimpses of his public appearances suggest that he feels the Turkmen public would rather see their leader and protector riding about the streets of a deserted Ashgabat on his top-of-the-range bicycle, singing songs about horses, or firing unerringly at a succession of targets. Despite the impression of a 100% success rate – anything less wouldn’t be in keeping with his self-deification – there is a lack of footage showing the president’s finger pulling the trigger at the crucial moments. Targets looking suspiciously like they’ve been pulled down rather than flattened by Berdymukhamedow’s dead-eye marksmanship lend a certain irony to a presidency more a hall of mirrors than an ode to transparency.
If it wasn’t so ludicrous that a leader of a gas-rich state treated it as his own personal playground, all the while failing to dupe his citizens and the world at large into believing he is everything he certainly is not, it would be You’ve Been Framed-style laughable. The nonsense of a president playing fast and loose with the country’s money, earned from a ‘one off’ commodity that can never be reproduced, while citizens in some areas of Turkmenistan queue for cooking oil, flour, and bread is North Korea-lite; many of the traits are redolent of the Kim Dynasty, albeit but without a nuclear capability and intermittent sabre rattling.
When President Berdymukhamedow sang about his love for all things equine, in particular the indigenous Akhal-Teke breed, I was almost instantly reminded of an episode of Father Ted, when the comedy’s synonymous character dueted with companion Father Dougal on an appalling penned, and sung, ode to his ‘lovely horse’. Whilst this was done to prevent Ireland winning the next Eurovision song contest and therefore swerve the notoriously high cost of staging the annual event, Turkmenistan’s president sang on the same subject with such gusto and apparent sincerity that it was quite easy to forget which clip featured a head of state. Unfortunately viewed by many of those in the foreign media otherwise ignorant to the country’s plight as harmless and eccentric, such stunts, whilst hardly befitting a statesman provide comedic ‘and finally’ clips completely out of context with the wider picture.
With no alternative on the horizon it would seems inevitable that Serdar Berdymukhamedow will have to use much of his time as governor of Ahal province on brushing up his cycling, target shooting, and DJing, if he is going to cut the mustard as his father’s successor. Without a grounding in the issues critical to the smooth running of a country and the equitable treatment of its people, one wonders just what state Turkmenistan will be in when the the former dentist calls it a day, and if the international community will finally stop being distracted by the antics of one of the most ruinous and autocratic regimes in the modern era.
Source material and further information:
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: http://www.rferl.org/a/turkmen-president-names-son-provincial-governor/30004420.html and http://www.rferl.org/a/turkmen-president-acts-tough-in-videos-but-keeps-distance-from-real-threats/30008769.html
YouTube(Father Ted): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jzYzVMcgWhg
Wikipedia(mens rea): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mens_rea