The cliched image of a ‘fat cop’ more au fait with bribery and corruption than a consistent and just delivery of the rule of law is synonymous with countries whose regimes provide the inspiration for their police force, both in terms of an amoral modus operandi and in physical appearance that can often mirror the president himself.

The obvious candidate in Central Asia whose hefty build and somewhat ‘out to lunch’ appearance presents a dictatorial, despotic air of unpredictability is undoubtedly Tajik premier Emomali Rahmon. At times looking more like a well-oiled wedding guest squeezed into an unforgiving suit Rahmon nevertheless cuts an intimidating figure and one that wouldn’t look out of place on the streets of Dushanbe issuing speeding tickets and smashing headlights from behind inscrutable aviator shades.

Tajikistan has though already taken steps to weed out any corpulence within the ranks of its police force, with several officers being dismissed in 2017 for failing to meet their target weight. Whilst a paunch overhanging a trouser belt is hardly the image one would expect from a dedicated lawman it does though seem hypocritical for leaders not exactly noted for their svelte frames to condemn the overworked and underpaid purely on superficial grounds. In an area of the world where preponderant hypocrisy and controlling the controllables are firmly established as the norm, it should not come as any great surprise that the irony of such instances seems lost on leaders whose delusional behaviour and narcissism preclude them from similar courses of self-examination.

No former ‘stan’ of Central Asia has taken irony, manipulation of the truth and the image of a vainglorious leader to such extremes as Turkmenistan. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow, an unabashed fitness fanatic and former dentist to the previous leader may be many things but tubby isn’t one of them. Bestriding a country seen as more a private playground and blank canvas for his grandiose, futile schemes Berdymukhamedow looks every inch a suave and lean man about town, even when hair dye supplies appear to have run dangerously low. Often pictured in the heavily controlled state media riding a state of the art bike through a deserted Ashgabat, pumping iron in an improbably well-equipped but again otherwise uninhabited gym, firing guns at targets that fall before the b of the bang and shooting a quick 9/18 holes with buddy Jack Nicklaus, the president’s every public move seems to exude the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and impeccable orthodontics. It is though one thing setting the health and fitness bar high for his fellow Turkmen but quite another to expect citizens, an estimated 50% of whom are unemployed, to be able to purchase expensive cycles, golf clubs and gym memberships on paltry or non-existent wages. It is the very fact that tens of billions of hydrocarbon dollars have been siphoned off by the president and his cronies, often to construct Potemkin-esque structures which nobody is allowed to use or cannot afford to, which has precipitated huge shortages of basic foodstuffs and now hard cash in many of the country’s ATM machines.

It is though Turkmenistan’s police who are now being targeted to shape up or ship out. The hackneyed image of a rotund cop seeking his next bribe might play out as a comedic scene in the Dukes of Hazzard or depict a lazy, corrupt, and incompetent Chief Wiggum in The Simpson’s but for once Berdymukhamedow calls it right: nobody wants or expects a law enforcement agent to be too large to effectuate a successful pursuit on foot of a suspected criminal. The physical appearance of a police worker does not though address the potential for venality; a large cop could present the wrong image but be diligent and fair in his(or her) daily duties but an athletic and slim policeman with a cut of his jib of which Berdymukhamedow would surely approve could be as corrupt as the man at the top. It is therefore not appearance that need overhauling but the collective and individual mindset.

Wherever humans exist on earth the police have always had their bad eggs but an alacrity for bribery and extortion to the degree it exists in Turkmenistan has two points of origin. Firstly, wages for the country’s police are unbelievably low to a point where being employed barely outweighs its antithesis. It is under these circumstances where the topping up of salaries from bribes often stemming from trumped up violations becomes the only option, compromising the ideals of the vast majority of those who presumably took on law enforcement roles for the right reasons. This leads into the second reason.

Had President Berdymukhamedow not used Turkmenistan’s cheque book as if it was his own slush fund there would have been far more money available for the nuts and bolts of everyday life, including paying public servants a living wage. It will not be lost on those in the police service who resort to underhand ways to enhance their paltry pay that they are being denied lives above subsistence level because money has been diverted away from public services to bankroll an amount of white elephants that would make a safari park blush. Quite simply, if the president gets away with manipulating the truth and taking money from the country for his own personal whims and fantasies, he cannot complain if his example to the nation is reconstituted into a free for all, do-what-it-takes-to-survive way of life for many of its citizens.

It would seem that the way Turkmenistan works from the top down is more akin to being on the fiddle than one being played whilst the country metaphorically burns, and inexorably sinks further into interminable decline. A ploy of a country still regarded as a gas giant holding regional giants at arm’s length and playing them off against each other is not sustainable. One can only assume that the president will know when the time is right to excuse himself from his seat of office, presumably just as the call to ‘abandon ship’ is heralded by the band striking up for a final time. With a reported $23 billion squirreled away in various German bank accounts it is not unreasonable to suggest that this constitutes a Sovereign Wealth Fund not for a country’s future, but to benefit that of an individual.

Source material and further information:

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: http://www.rferl.org/a/fat-cops-in-turkmenistan-told-lose-weight-or-lose-job-/30291506.html