In 2004 the Harvard Business Review called it right.

Their take on narcissists concluded that the vainglorious are “unproductive when, lacking self-knowledge and restraining anchors, they become unrealistic dreamers. They nurture grand schemes and harbour the illusion that only circumstances, or enemies block their success“.

Does all this sound terribly familiar, even in the modern era? President of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow, come on down. This is your life.

Proof enough that personality-types transcend the ages. As eras come and trends go, a narcissist can demonstrate the same characteristics now as was shown by individuals of influence, and infamy, hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.

Let us then drill down into some of President Berdymukhamedow’s traits and appetites that correlate to the Harvard Business Review’s take on the seemingly glorious failures presided over by narcissists.

I cautioned against using the word ‘idiosyncrasies’ to describe the former dentist’s behaviour, for fear of downplaying the ruinous affect his hand on the Turkmen tiller, and cheque book, has done to the former Soviet republic. To portray someone as idiosyncratic paints a picture of a harmless buffoon with benevolent, eccentric tendencies more amusing than damaging. It would be clearly wrong to categorize Berdymukhamedow in this manner.

For a country to be hydrocarbon-rich but in the throes of an economic crisis one can only conclude that the president is unproductive, and lacking self-awareness/knowledge. How else can it be explained away that Ashgabat, the most marbled city on earth, is often deserted save for those futilely queuing for basic foodstuffs and at ATM’s? (You can now even be arrested for forming an orderly queue for your own money).

An often cry of ‘where has all the money gone’ is there for all to see, in the form of statuary, an empty Caspian Sea resort, a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course reserved for roaming white elephants, and a multi-billion dollar falcon-influenced airport terminal that few can arrive at, let alone leave. Why all this, and more? Quite simply, because the man can; it reflects his deity-like sagacity and foresight to which few others can aspire.

A lack of a restraining anchor. Here is the preserve of not just the narcissist, who by definition is always right and cannot abide views to the contrary, but the autocrat, the dictator, the totalitarian. Are the two mutually exclusive? Perhaps not, but I felt the need to separate what otherwise looks to be inextricably conjoined traits.

Who though will restrain the president in a one-party system where the security services surveil Turkmen both within the country’s borders and abroad, aided and abetted by foreign companies touting the latest state of the art equipment to the president? The fact many of his countrymen live in abject poverty, with little chance of employment within their own country does not check the president’s progress or thinking. Nothing appears to restrain an appetite that knows no satiety; assuming a lack of money will eventually clip Berdymukhamedow’s wings, there is a rumoured $23 billion squirreled away in several German bank accounts. With rumours rife that money, perhaps from China, is being used to prop up his regime, it is nevertheless painfully obvious that it, and/or money gained through the sales of hydrocarbons and cotton, is NOT being used to ease the lives of the beleaguered citizens that haven’t found a way to flee the country.

Narcissists become unrealistic dreamers but is that realism as viewed by the outside world looking in, or by the patient themselves? I personally doubt Berdymukhamedow considers his vision for Turkmenistan as an out of whack dream, although perhaps unfulfilled, but one that has simply yet to be brought to fruition. Masked as insatiability and never being satisfied, one wonders if the president would recognize his own personal nirvana should it ever be reached. No, there will always be a need for more, be it statues, new cities, or hair dye. The lack of realism attached to his tenure will stem from those within the country and in the wider world who keep it real, something a narcissist could never be accused of.

Under the aegis of Berdymukhamedow Turkmenistan has certainly become his personal playground, pockmarked by countless grand schemes wholly out of keeping with the country’s traditions and topography. The same can of course be said for Dubai and Abu Dhabi but the the United Arab Emirates at least allow tourists to visit their gaudy, incongruous constructs and have a Sovereign Wealth Fund for when the taps finally run dry. The fact that golf courses and resorts are out of financial reach for the overwhelming majority of the country’s citizens is immaterial to the president. More intent on showcasing his ingenuity and desperate to be taken seriously on the world stage instead of being regarded as a desert backwater, if nobody uses the modern facilities generously bestowed upon the country by his wisdom and altruism it is seen as a pejorative reflection on the population, and not that they simply cannot afford to, even if they wished. Tales of civil servants being coerced in to using the Awaza coastal resort for their annual vacations are though credible, in what amounts to a case of ‘you will go there’ and ‘you will enjoy it’; rather than constructing a tasteful, sympathetic resort, the Potemkin-esque facade is about as welcoming as a tubercular passenger on a long-haul flight.

Only circumstances or enemies can prevent the narcissist from being a success. In a classic case of failure being the fault of everyone else but oneself the narcissist can do no wrong, with only the unenlightened and naysayers hindering the path to greatness. It is though that very interminable path to greatness which ultimately stymies the narcissist, who can never find satisfaction or be glad about what they have accomplished. Although there is an absence of admission of personal failure through a lack of actual talent and never being satisfied, there is at least an inbuilt excuse that despite their best efforts the actions of others has ultimately put paid to their pursuit of greatness. Whether Berdymukhamedow can though use this excuse is moot, for this is a man who has presided over the silencing, persecution, and imprisoning of anyone sounding like, or just plainly resembling a dissenter. Perhaps Johnnie Foreigner will in the end play the fall guy, when those ‘nasty’ outsiders eventually stop buying the country’s hydrocarbons or funnelling alleged ‘prop up’ payments into Turkmenistan.

When, not if, the whole house of cards comes crashing down, you can be assured it will not be President Berdymukhamedow’s fault…

Source material and further information:

Harvard Business Review: