UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Gurbanguly M. Berdimuhamedov

Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov first came into power in 2007. The 54-year-old is called “Arkadag: The Patron” by those who work for him. He is president, prime minister and commander of the armed forces. He has also been given the title “Hero of Turkmenistan” by lawmakers. Constraints on the president included his inexperience, lack of independent power, the population's mentality (quick moves were "impossible and dangerous") and Russian influence. Berdimuhamedov is a complex combination of Soviet bureaucrat, traditional Turkmen tribal elite, and card-carrying member of the intelligentsia, which makes him very different in psychological makeup from his predecessor. His strong family ties and professional working style suggest that he has every intention of achieving something for Turkmenistan while he is in office, and is open to new ideas. However, his unfamiliarity with substantial portions of the territory that comes with being president and his desire to proceed carefully point to a continued gradual process.

Gurbanguly M. Berdimuhamedov was born in 1957, in the Babarap village of Geok-tepe district (Ashgabat province) of Turkmenistan. The president appeared to be different from his predecessor in many ways, but most notably in his family origins. Raised in a large, conservative, but atheistic family in Geok Depe, he seems to have been infused with a strong set of traditional family values. These values were reinforced by strong female and male role-model parents who were concurrently loyal to their ethnic Turkmen roots, loyal to the Soviet state, and well-educated. His official biography, published after he took office in February, credited his father with encouraging his only son to employ moderation and a gradual, well-considered pace in his decision-making processes.

His traditional Turkmen nature also comes out with respect to his wife, who is rumored to be from the region of Mary. According to the precepts of Asian culture, next to nothing has been reported about Berdimuhamedov's wife and children. Rumors point to two women in his life, one Russian (possibly a mistress, but this is uncorroborated), and one Turkmen. His Turkmen wife has been seen only once, when a US embassy employee reported having seen her, in traditional clothing, alone with him in a car as they drove to a campaign event in Mary in early 2007. Some Turkmen postulate that their marriage may have been arranged, but it is notable that since taking office, Berdimuhamedov has appointed numerous officials who hail from the Mary region, as well as from Geok Depe.

In 1979 Berdimuhamedov graduated from Turkmen State Medical Institute in Ashgabat. From 1979 to 1997 – was working in different posts in the system of Ministry of Healthcare and Medical Industry of Turkmenistan. Has worked as a teacher, associate professor in the chair of preventive dentistry, Dean of dentistry faculty of Turkmen State Medical Institute, Director of Stomatological Center of the Ministry of Healthcare and Medical Industry of Turkmenistan. He has obtained a PhD, Doctor’s degree in medical science.In December 1997 he was appointed Minister of Healthcare and Medical Industry of Turkmenistan. Berdimuhamedov continues to do specific research in medicine. The scope of his scientific interests also includes economics, ecology, and history. In his free time he enjoys sport shooting, horse riding and racing, and martial arts.

He was appointed Executive Director of Healthcare Development Foundation of Turkmenistan and Acting Rector of Turkmen State Medical Institute. In April 2001 he was appointed Deputy Chairman of Cabinet of Ministers of Turkmenistan. On December 21, 2006 by the decision of the State Security Council of Turkmenistan he was appointed Acting President of Turkmenistan and Supreme Commander-in-Chief of Armed Forces of Turkmenistan. On February 11, 2007 on nationwide election out of six candidates he was elected President of Turkmenistan. On February 14, 2007 in the XIX session of Halk Maslahaty (Peoples Council) – supreme authority of Turkmenistan – Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov officially assumed a post of the President of Turkmenistan. On February 12, 2012 President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov was re-elected for a second term.

Some foreign visitors who met with him since he took office as president concluded after the discussions that he may not be that bright. However, his capacity to navigate complex subject matter may be limited by the quality of his briefing papers and his personal familiarity with the topic. Those who worked with Berdimuhamedov when he was health minister report he was a professional interlocutor who was engaged, positive, and receptive to proposals and suggestions, particularly those in the areas of health and education. However, there were also times when he, similar to other Turkmen officials long isolated from technical and scientific developments abroad, did not understand the nature of the proposal that NGOs or aid groups put forward. At least once, when a project presenter explained the details in more basic language, he complained of being "spoken to like a child."

Many Turkmen have heard rumors that several years ago, Berdimuhamedov's son struck and killed a pedestrian while racing his car along Archabil Highway in Ashgabat. Berdimuhamedov is said to still hold a grudge against a senior official of the MNB, because he had been the official responsible for his son's temporary detention and had been unwilling negotiate for his son's release. Although there is no corroborating information, it is unlikely his son spent much time in jail, if any, and is now reportedly living abroad.

Rumors abound regarding his intolerance of government functionaries who were insubordinate or lacked decorum. He was once rumored to have fired two female bureaucrats because they were whispering and laughing when he entered the room. Locally employed staff reported rumors that he requires female government functionaries to dress appropriately with arms and legs covered, and does not hesitate to criticize their choice of attire. A Turkmen citizen, who met with him regularly when he was Health Minister, described him as rank-conscious, particularly in terms of the deference and respect he expected from those subordinate to him. She said that he had a reputation for being a very demanding manager who instilled fear in his staff. She noted that he could be demonstrative when he became angry or frustrated, kicking things over and shouting, but said he had never become angry with her, perhaps because she was not in his chain of command.

Berdimuhamedov holds a remarkable record in having survived three different crises while a cabinet minister under Niyazov. In 2003, Niyazov publicly reprimanded him for his ministry's failure to improve the quality of new doctors, but he retained his post. In 2004, Niyazov again publicly criticized him and fined him three months' salary for failing to prevent salary arrears among health care and education personnel, but again he remained in office. It is also rumored that just before Niyazov's death, an epidemic swept through Niyazov's private livestock herd, killing a number of cattle. The veterinarian in charge of the herd was jailed, but again Niyazov did not remove Berdimuhamedov from his post. No explanation or theory has been offered how he survived these crises, other than the rumor that he is Niyazov's illegitimate son. Niyazov would have fathered him at 17. More likely, it is possible that Berdimuhamedov's intellectual skills and cultural instinct enabled him to do the necessary political triage to preserve his position.

Officially, Niyazov's "Golden Age of the Turkmen" is not yet over (It was supposed to encompass the entire 21st Century, according to the slogsns). Nonetheless, the Turkmen government under Berdimuhamedov has introduced a new slogan - "New Revival" - intended to characterize a "new" era. The new slogan begs the question why the country needs a new revival after a golden age. As explained in the Turkmen press during the first days of Berdimuhamedov's rule, the nation "needed new revival after the nation suffered the sudden demise of Turkmenbashy, the Great Leader." There was a need for "New Revival" for those who felt the nation had been left without its "caring father." Also, the practice of rebuilding the ancestral village of the sitting president, carried out by Niyazov, has continued under Berdimuhamedov for his own village.

Concerning the substitution of Niyazov's iconic family members, it seems attempts to sanctify members of the Berdimuhamedov's family have to date remained cautious. Only Malikguly, Berdimuhamedov's father, seems to have an active role in creating a new national ideology. Attempts by government ideologues to create another 'Gurbansoltan- Eje' (the cult name of Turkmenbashy's mother) out of Berdimuhamedov's mother have fallen short. In Turkmen schools, the Niyazov placards and photos have been replaced by those of Berdimuhamedov, depicting the life path of the president, especially his educational achievements, including his diploma from the Turkmen Medical Institute and his PhD in dentistry from a medical institute in Moscow.

Turkmenistan President Berdimuhamedov appears to be following in the steps of his predecessor by establishing his own cult of personality, drawing on an example he knows and with which he feels comfortable. When Berdimuhamedov first became president, the Democratic Party, which supports the concept of one strong ruler, was assigned the task of building up the new leader. Party activists did this in part by traveling around Turkmenistan and praising the president. Berdimuhamedov's omnipresence was also conveyed through the public display of his portrait throughout Ashgabat and the rest of the country. His portrait is on billboards at major street intersections, in conference rooms in government buildings, and in banquet halls at government-owned restaurants and hotels. On Turkmenistan Airlines flights, Berdimuhamedov's portrait hangs in the front of the cabin. There are even portraits at a local gym of Berdimuhamedov doing karate. In June 2010, Berdimuhamedov presided over the opening of the newly-built central mosque in Mary city, which was named for the president.

Berdimuhamedov also exerted his authority over a wide range of subject matters, showing himself to be the foremost expert on everything from city planning to medicine. He has written books on the Ahal-Teke horses. medicinal plants, and the "Epoch of the New Revival," which is what the state press has named Berdimuhamedov's presidency. The state-run television news shows him almost every day chairing government meetings, where he appears to strictly assess the work of each Deputy Chairman of his Cabinet. He is also frequently shown demonstrating his expertise in riding horses, participating in other sports, and inspecting the wide array of new projects being constructed around the country. News anchors and commentators credit almost every positive development to "our esteemed president." When new South Korean-built buses first appeared on the streets of Ashgabat, they were labeled with the phrase "gift of the respected president." Berdimuhamedov, his accomplishments, and past speeches, are often the central focus of speeches and addresses by Turkmen officials at events, even if the event has little to do with the president.

There are some limits to Berdimuhamedov's self promotion. He has not erected statues of himself, as his predecessor Niyazov did, nor has he put his face on any of the new money that was minted in 2009. In most private homes, apartment buildings, and restaurants there are no posters of the president. Conversations with local residents rarely focus on anything related to Berdimuhamedov or his polices, unless it is to complain about the president's traveling causing traffic jams.

The president's picture does not need to be seen everywhere for his presence to be felt ubiquitously. No one wants to be in the position of being seen as challenging the president, so they tend to acquiesce to anything that they are told is a presidential order. For instance, in the week leading up to New Year's, restaurant owners were ordered to close their businesses, reportedly by presidential order. When one restaurant owner questioned the legitimacy of the order and asked to see it in writing, he was harassed by the local police, but never shown a written document, raising questions about whether the order really came from the president. In addition, having connections to the president is viewed as a trump card, that can be used to exert power in almost any situation.

Although there are, no doubt, some individuals who have influence with Berdimuhamedov, Turkmenistan's Government is a one-man show and that seems to be the system most Turkmen expect. Deputy Chairs of the Cabinet of Ministers, presumably the next highest level of officials, act extremely deferentially to the president both in public and in private meetings. And in many ways they act as his staff. The president's influence is felt in all aspects of life from celebrations like weddings and New Year's to everyday activities, such as going to the gym. It seems likely that the cult of personality will continue to spread, because the Turkmen have no other indigenous model for governance. One sign of Berdimuhamedov deliberately trying to bolster his image as the sole source of power would be removing some of the statues of the former President Niyazov.

Berdimuhamedov may not be as healthy as the state media depicts. There are reports that President Berdimuhamedov suffers from type 2 diabetes and by 2010 may be suffering some of the long-term medical effects associated with the disease. Given President's Berdimuhamedov's weight problems, love of Coca Cola Classic, and general appearance, a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes seems entirely plausible. Furthermore, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure are not uncommon ailments among middle-aged Turkmen.

The Turkmen President only drinks Coke Classic from small glass bottles. Every few months, a government official from the President's office comes to the plant and selects random cases of bottles of Coke for the President's own consumption and for his guests. Coke Classic represents 60 percent of sales in Turkmenistan, mainly because Turkmen trust the brand, and more important Turkmen President Berdimuhamedev, a dentist by trade, "loves his Coca-Cola Classic."

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 10-03-2013 19:18:04 ZULU