By Pam Burke 

View from the North 40: Redefining leadership the old-Turkmenistan way


Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov — who has also been known to bust a move singing rap — has written a poem to honor Turkmenistan’s wheat and the farmers who grow it.

“I wish success to the farmer, the whole world warms itself with wheat,” read the poem attributed to Berdymukhamedov in a June 30 Agence France Presse article, which was picked up by news agencies all over the world.

Berdymukhamedov, who parlayed his early dental career into a presidency, told Turkmenistan state television that the verses had been inspired by the sight of “fields of waving wheat” while traveling the country on official duties.

Turkmenistan, which is bordered by the Caspian Sea in the west, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to the north and east, and Afghanistan and Iran to the south, has worked to find itself again after decades of rule under the old Soviet Union.

Berdymukhamedov, a horse fanatic with perfect hair, often makes his public appearances astride an Akhal Teke — Turkmenistan’s national breed of horse. He even rides in public horse races, but the wheat thing is salt-of-the-earth imagery that hearkens back to those old Soviet roots.

Still, he does make it sound pretty: “When you harvest wheat with your own hands or at the wheel of a combine harvester, special feelings awaken in your soul … because bread is not just a food product, it is an invaluable gift from the Earth to man.”

And Berdymukhamedov knows value and pretty. He lives in the capitol of Ashgabat — where it isn’t just the capitol building that’s made of white marble, it’s almost the entire city. Of course, much of that ostentation can be attributed to his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

After Niyazov died in 2006, Berdymukhamedov was appointed interim ruler and then he helped rewrite the laws so he could be elected president, and he’s worked to reform the country.

Berdymukhamedov’s recently installed, government-commissioned, 69-foot tall, gold-plated statue of himself on horseback really subdues Niyazov’s glitzy style — as does Berdymukhamedov’s classic car collection, his nights spent DJ-ing events, and his self-published music and books.

He is a man of the people, a self-declared strongman for the people. He has proved this not just by pushing through legislation that would make him elected leader for life, but also by coming before his parliament to perform lifts with a solid gold bar in 2018, Business Insider reported March 14. The article also said this is just one of many parliament meetings in which he has helped by lightening the mood.

Like pretty much all authoritarian leaders, he likes to control the performance around him, and that includes the news agencies. Turkmen news agencies are almost entirely state-owned. After the one independently owned Radio Azatlyk started speculating in 2019 that Berdymukhamedov might have died after he disappeared for several weeks without word or trace, he had his news stations run undated footage of himself to show proof of life.

The 25-minute montage of proof, CNN reported Aug. 6, showed him reviewing pictures of bus shelters, riding horses, composing music with his grandson, bowling in the company of his clapping aides, who are all dressed in matching tracksuits, and racing a rally car across the country’s Karakum Desert. The rally car run ended with him spinning circles around the country’s Darvaza Crater, a national monument that is a 230-foot wide, flaming natural gas pit nicknamed the Gateway to Hell.

Natural gas and oil are, in fact, one of the nation’s natural resources. Until about 2017, these reserves helped provide every household with free electricity and natural gas, along with a stipend for water and petroleum per person. This ended when a deal was struck to extend a pipeline to the country and sell the gas and oil, mainly to China.

But the Turkmen people did get that gold statue out of the deal, and a bargain on their new utility meters.

All sarcasm aside, Berdymukhamedov is doing something right. NPR reported that Turkmenistan has seen zero COVID-19 cases, and their leader even outlawed mask-wearing.

It might be all that good living with the wheat harvesting and bread eating.

It might also be because dentist-rapper-strongman-leader Berdymukhamedov actually banned the word coronavirus, forbidding state-controlled media from writing or uttering the word, and he ordered its removal from health brochures distributed at hospitals, schools and workplaces.

It’s really hard to get sick or die from something that you can’t even say you had.


You cannot beat that logic, maybe someone could match it, but you can’t beat it at [email protected]


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