The inner workings of Turkmenistan may be the most concealed of any country – it allows very few people to enter or leave its borders. Despite displaying a capital city carved from marble and buildings trimmed with gold, such an image of wealth may be misleading. According to Business Insider, the oil and natural gas-rich nation is closer to economic collapse than it appears, possesses a distressing human rights record, and has a bizarre president who heads a dictatorship comparable to that of North Korea.
A former dentist, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov first rose to power in Turkmenistan in 2006. Berdymukhamedov is a strongman with more of an interest in capturing the public’s eye than effective governance. State media does not discuss the food scarcity in the country or how those who oppose the president vanish, the BBC reports. Berdymukhamedov, who is often referred to as the ‘Tyrant of Turkmenistan’, regularly performs unusual publicity stunts.
According to the Telegraph, one video showed Berdymukhamedov shooting guns, throwing knives, and ordering a helicopter to drop explosives as an expression of personal and military strength. While the state media praised his skill, a parody video soon emerged combining scenes of the president’s video and with scenes of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1985 film Commando. In a country where a public objection to the president very uncommon, this is a sign of popular dissatisfaction with Berdymukhamedov’s performance.
Berdymukhamedov’s dictatorship is ruthless and secretive. Human Rights Watch reports that after opening up about his sexuality online, Kasymberdy Garayev, a citizen of Turkmenistan, went missing. Some question whether he was imprisoned for being gay and demand a timely release.
Any homosexual conduct is outlawed in Turkmenistan, and those suspected of being gay are subject to brutal and invasive examinations by authorities. Police previously arrested Garayev in 2018 after the government lured him into a date with a man and then took him into custody. Garayev was reportedly pressured through violence to confess that he is gay, though he was later released after several hours with no pending charges.
Because Turkmenistan controls all information that leaves the country, it is difficult to determine the accuracy of government reports. For example, despite the prevalence of food shortages, Turkmenistan claims their economy is exceptional. The government claims that the economy has seen a six percent growth in just four years, according to Eurasianet. Turkmenistan has no public agency that reports on the economy, and statistics are provided to the IMF by the enigmatic government itself. These statistics are suspicious amid signs of economic downturn.
News from Turkmenistan can also be disorienting and misleading. Starting July 27, 2019, stories claiming that the president had died began to circle online, according to The Diplomat. A confirming statement was retracted shortly after, and the media attempted to prove the president was alive and well, even though Berdymukhamedov made no public appearances for several months.
The uncharacteristic absence of the president in the public eye did not go unnoticed, and speculations continued to spread. Discourse erupted over the president’s wellbeing on social media. Notably, the internet was not shut down during this time, which is unusual given how tightly the government tends to monitor information. State media finally put all rumors to rest in early August, when they released footage of Berdymukhamedov driving dangerously around the so-called “Gates of Hell”, an enormous continuously-burning crater that has been on fire since the 1970s, CNN reports.
Questions of succession emerged during the president’s absence. The Diplomat states that some believe the president has been training his son to take over after his death. When Berdymukhamedov’s predecessor died in 2006, the government did not follow protocol for instituting a new president.
Technically, there is still a constitutional procedure in place from before Berdymukhamedov’s rule but given past misconduct, it is unlikely that the government will follow it when it comes time to replace Berdymukhamedov. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan remains a restrictive dictatorship with an all-powerful leader, an atrocious human rights record, and no free press.