Before his sudden reemergence at the Caspian Economic Forum this week, speculation had recently been swirling in Turkmenistan after the country’s strongman president disappeared from public view for more than a month.
Considering that Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov regularly dominates the airwaves in the tightly controlled state, his abrupt absence did not go unnoticed, prompting speculation that he was in poor health or even dead.
This obviously posed a problem for the Turkmen authorities, who have spent years cultivating an elaborate cult of personality aimed at boosting the totalitarian leader’s power and prestige.
When ubiquitous dictators suddenly evaporate into thin air, it can have a destabilizing effect on their regimes.
Perhaps hoping to avoid the crippling uncertainty that gripped the Soviet Union immediately following the demise of Stalin or the rampant rumors that accompanied the long-drawn-out announcement of Islam Karimov’s death in neighboring Uzbekistan in 2016, the Turkmen authorities went into overdrive to assure the populace, and the world at large, that their glorious leader was alive and well.
This all culminated in state TV broadcasting an August 4 highlights package showing a 35-minute montage of clips of what Turkmenistan’s all-singing, all-dancing president had been doing on his “holidays,” including riding a bicycle, firing an automatic weapon in combat gear, bowling with astonishing accuracy, riding a horse, working on a new book, composing a new song, and driving an SUV through the desert to the Gates of Hell — a perpetually burning crater that resulted from a Soviet attempt to flare gas there in the early 1970s.
Not surprisingly, such blatant silly-dictator antics have been gleefully seized upon by many detractors, including the U.S.-based satirists Trevor Noah and John Oliver.
In a five-minute segment on The Daily Show, Noah used the opportunity to reprise some of the video “highlights” of Berdymukhammedov’s bizarre reign, including the South African comedian’s own personal favorite, which shows the Turkmen leader rocking out with his grandson.
Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver went even further, devoting a full 20-minute segment to documenting the sheer “weirdness” of the Berdymukhammedov regime.
Among other things, Oliver took great delight in dissecting the Turkmen president’s fascination with horses, which RFE/RL has also covered in the past.
The British-born comic paid particular attention to the time when Berdymukhammedov had an embarrassing fall while riding a beloved steed, a story that the Turkmen authorities did their best to try and bury.
Besides mining the subject for laughs, however, both also made sure to draw attention to the dark side of life in Turkmenistan, particularly its abysmal human rights record.
According to its latest World Report, Human Rights Watch singled out the country for particular criticism, calling it “one of the world’s most isolated and oppressively governed” states, where “all forms of religious and political expression not approved by the government are brutally punished.”
With this in mind, Oliver also took the time to take a swipe at Guinness World Records for actually sending verifiers to validate what he described as Berdymukhammedov’s “bizarre obsession” with setting global firsts (something he shares with some Central Asian counterparts).
In Oliver’s view, enabling Berdymukhammedov to register such Turkmen records as having “the most buildings with marble cladding” or the “world’s largest indoor Ferris wheel” only serves to “reinforce a cult of personality and confer a sense of legitimacy on a global stage.”
Typically, Oliver was to have one last laugh at the Turkmen leader’s expense, however.
Taking a leaf out of Berdymukhammedov’s book, the Last Week Tonight ended the show by attempting to break another record, making what Oliver described as the “world’s largest marbled cake” — a 55-square-meter confectionery decorated with a huge picture of the Turkmen president infamously falling off his horse.
It’s probably safe to assume that this is probably not a record achievement Turkmen state TV is going to be trumpeting anytime soon.