- By Reid StandishReid Standish is associate editor, digital, at Foreign Policy. Reid writes on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and is the newsroom’s digital point person. He has lived in and reported from Finland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, where he covered everything from Santa Claus to drug trafficking. A native of British Columbia, he holds a B.A. in international studies from Simon Fraser University and an M.A. from the University of Glasgow.
Is there anything Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov can’t do?
He’s serenaded his country’s workers with his own songs. His prowess as an athlete is broadcast across the nation on state television. He won the last election with 98 percent of the vote, and it goes without sayin’, is one of Turkmenistan’s leading DJ’s. But none of that compares to Berdymukhamedov’s latest display of state-engineered genius as a master of arms and commando warfare.
In footage broadcast Tuesday on Turkmen state television, the Central Asian leader is dressed in full kit, complete with a pair of black sunglasses, as he shows off his combat skills: firing an automatic rifle, plastering targets with his pistol, and throwing knives as a crowd of military and security officers attentively stand by and furiously applaud.
Berdymukhamedov performed the routine at a border station south of Ashgabat, the capital, as the television report gushed praise upon the president’s supposedly unparalleled skill as a warrior.
“Picking up one of the types of weapons presented to him, the head of state demonstrated the precision of his aim, which served as evidence of his high level of military preparedness,” said the state news broadcast.
The clip below, which has been edited by the opposition website the Chronicles of Turkmenistan to include clips from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1985 film Commando, shows the entire broadcast, which also includes Berdymukhamedov calling in a helicopter strike on targets in the desert.
Berdymukhamedov, who was formerly a dentist, became president of Turkmenistan in 2006 following the death his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov, who was known for creating a cult of personality. He renamed the months of the year after himself and his mother, and raised a gold statue of his likeness that rotated to face the sun.
That left Berdymukhamedov a high bar — but he is determined to clear it. After becoming president, Berdymukhamedov dismantled the cult of Niyazov and eventually began building his own cult of personality, erecting his own statues and performing displays broadcast on state television, such as the recent counterterrorism exercise, that are meant to convey his strength as a leader. (Now all he needs is to shoot an 18 at golf.)
The timing and type of his latest demonstration is likely not coincidental. The Turkmen government is increasingly concerned about security — especially about Islamic State activity spilling over Turkmenistan’s roughly 460-mile border with Afghanistan. On Wednesday, Radio Free Europe’s Turkmen service reported that four suspected Islamic State militants were captured in the country’s southeast after crossing over from Afghanistan. The report added that 50 militants are believed to have recently crossed the border in recent months, with only 30 being apprehended.
Turkmenistan has no free media and is considered to be one of the world’s most isolated countries. So instead of frankly discussing security concerns along the Afghan border, expect more stunts by Berdymukhamedov meant to showcase his prowess as a leader.
Photo credit: YouTube/Chronicles of Turkmenistan