When Turkmenistan’s first post-Soviet dictator died in 2006, his personal doctor and the country’s minister of health was elected to proceed him: Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. Even though a dentist by training, he had loyally supported Niyazov’s great ideas like replacing nurses with soldiers on the state’s payroll and getting rid of unnecessary luxuries such as hospitals in the countryside. He even fought HIV by innovative means: prohibiting it.
However, when he got into power, he took some of Niyazov’s reforms back and hospitals, universities and libraries re-opened while the months got their original names back. Hopes that there would be democratic reforms were unfortunately misguided, and considering that he was last re-elected in February 2017 with a very solid 97.7 per cent of the votes, it looks like he wants to stay in power for life – just like his predecessor. Accordingly, Berdimuhamedow follows Niyazov’s recipes: There is only state-controlled media (only Eritrea and North Korea are worse off with regard to freedom of the press), no opposition, and critics of the system are tortured, force-institutionalised, vanish or go abroad “voluntarily”. By law, voicing public criticism against government policies or Berdimuhamedow is punished with at least 25 years in prison. Unsurprisingly, the government does not waste energy on granting free entrepreneurship or freedom of religion with Sunni Islam being the state religion.
Berdimuhamedow – who is thought by many to be Niyazov’s illegitimate son – also follows his mentor’s stance on personality cult: Turkmeni media portrays him as an incredible all-rounder that is not only an amazing sportsman but also plays the guitar, wrote more than 30 books and made it to “national horse breeder”. His favourite colour is white, so his means of transport are white stallions and limousines and he loves white outfits. Fortunately, this fits with Niyazov’s enthusiasm for white marble which Berdimuhamedow only embellished by a few highlights such as a 21 metres high gilded monument depicting himself on a horse carrying a dove.
Reportedly since 2015, only white cars can be imported and can get the inspection so that citizens wouldn’t interfere with the President’s colour scheme. Since January 2018, non-white cars have been forbidden altogether, and get towed and only released when the owner agrees to have them repainted. On the bright side, this isn’t too bad for 50 per cent of the population as women have been banned from driving since 2017 because Berdimuhamedow read that more than 50 per cent of all accidents involved women. Nowadays, 100 per cent of all accidents in Turkmenistan are caused by men.