Turkmenistan: The Karate-Chopping, Record-Breaking President

Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is not your usual type of a leader. Take his sports accomplishments, for example. The country's self-appointed Arkadag (Protector) holds a sixth dan black belt in karate and a seventh dan black belt in taekwondo. He takes part in (and wins) classic car races. Berdimuhamedov, a dentist and the country's former health minister, has forbidden his ministers to smoke and made it compulsory for everyone to attend the Saglyk Yoly (Walk of Health) every week.

The state-controlled printed press – operating in a country ranked 177th in a list of 179 in Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index – is tireless in praising the Turkmen leader's achievements in promoting sports and health in the country.

President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov.                      Image by Flickr user Kerry-Jo (CC BY-NC 2.0).

President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. Image by Flickr user Kerry-Jo (CC BY-NC 2.0).

It is much more difficult to learn what ordinary people in the country think about their leader and his ‘accomplishments’. Turkmen netizens rarely leave comments on Turkmen-hosted sites, but take the opportunity to participate in online conversations elsewhere, often using anonymizers.

President and his awards

In late May, Berdimuhamedov was awarded a copy of the the Russian Cup, the second major football trophy in Russia, and a gold medal of the country's Premier League by the Chairman of the State Council of Tatarstan, Farid Muhametshin. The award has provoked a lively debate on chrono-tm.org, a news blog and forum set up by Turkmen expatriates.

(N.B If Berdimuhamedov's connection to Russian football and Tatarstan seems obscure, then it should be understood that Kurban Berdyev, coach of Tatarstan's most decorated football club FC Rubin Kazan, which won the Russian Cup this year, is Turkmen).

Commenting on the forum, one reader, Walders, said [ru]:

Татары молодцы, хитрый стратегический ход. Просчитали заранее все слабости. Непонятно только зачем ему российский кубок, тогда бы и с Дакара тоже дали бы, там они тоже преуспели. А может и к лучшему? Вдруг о спорте в целом , а детском в частности, озаботится. Все какой то положительный момент в его правлении появится.

Good job Tatars. That was a sly strategic move. They knew his weaknesses. But it is not clear why he needs the Russian Cup. They could have also given him a Dakar Rally trophy… But maybe it is for the good. This might lead him to start caring about sports in general and children's sports in particular. Maybe it will bring some positive change to his rule

Nablyudatel chimed in [ru]:

Осталось только скафандр торжественно вручить и объявить почётным космонавтом Туркменистана(да пожалуй, не только Туркменистана).

He just needs to get a space suit and have the title of an honorary spaceman of Turkmenistan (and not only Turkmenistan) bestowed upon him

Barhan suggested [ru] ironically:

Возможно он вчера стал чемпионом мира по хоккею,вместе с командой России!

Maybe he also won the Ice Hockey World Championship with the Russian national team yesterday.

Alexxxgreen noted [ru] similarities between Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov and Sasha Baron Cohen's title character in the film ‘The Dictator’ (banned in Turkmenistan), while another reader proposed [ru]:

как ребенка покупают за блестящие игрушки…президент-недоросль!!!самолетики,машинки,лодорчки…титул Будды остался!!!

He is bought for shiny toys as a little child. This president hasn't grown up! Toy planes, toy cars, toy ships… The only title he is still missing is that of a Buddha!!!

The small country's big ‘toys’

While many netizens are ironic about presidential awards, some of Turkmenistan's more celebrated achievements are a  source of domestic pride and patriotism. In response to an article about the world's largest Ferris wheel which has recently been erected in the country, user of the Russian-language social networking site Moy Mir, Mergen Annanurov, said [ru]:

This is my city. My wonderful Turkmenistan

Another Moy Mir user, Mr. Nobody said [ru]:

I am proud of my city

In contrast to these sentiments, Turkmenistan's Guinness-directed projects remain objects of ridicule on international networks. A report on the Ferris wheel carried by the Yahoo news aggregator generated a host of ironic comments:

Just go observed:

In Soviet Turkmenistan, the ferris wheel rides you

While Greg joked:

They push you out at the top…

Old Geezer commented:

Amazing a rat hole like Trukenistan doing better than America. You remember don't you? The America that used to build and do big things!

And george S concluded:

90 million seems like alot to pay for a record. I'm sure there are no projects or causes or people in need where that money could go. Dumb

Struggling against a tide of scorn, anonymouse, possibly a Turkmen netizen, reminded the western commenters that other countries also have records to be embaressed about:

So? the US has the world record debt, and probably always will. is this a great country or what?

Note: The Turkmen authorities possibly deserve some credit for not trying to break the same record twice. As reported earlier by Global Voices, Tajikistan now boasts the tallest free-standing flagpole in the world (541 ft). Turkmenistan's version, at 436 ft, has fallen into fourth place. No efforts to ‘repair’ or rebuild the Ashkabad flagpole have been announced.



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