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Qishloq Ovozi

The two faces of Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov: unforgiving autocrat and smiling man of the people (combo photo)

Turkmenistan is conducting a presidential election on February 12. Eight competitors are running against the incumbent, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

But if he looks like Berdymukhammedov, the person who's been hitting the campaign trail in the last week or so doesn’t much act like Berdymukhammedov.

First, let's take a brief look at the eight candidates in the race. (That’s a record for a Turkmen presidential election.) It's probably one of the only times you’ll ever hear about these folks.

They are: the deputy head of Mary Province, Jumanazar Annayev; the director of the Seidi oil refinery and member of parliament, Ramazan Durdyyev; the deputy head of the Dashoguz regional administration, Meretdurdy Gurbanov; the chief of the department of economy and development of the Akhal regional administration, Serdar Jelilov; the CEO of Garabogazsulfat, the production association of the Turkmenchemistry state concern, Suleimannepes Nurnepesov; the deputy chairman of the state food industry, Maksat Annanepesov; the candidate of the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Bekmyrat Atalyev; and Agrarian Party candidate Durdygylych Orazov.

They will be splitting the 1.5 to 2 percent (I predict) of the votes Berdymukhammedov does not receive.

Which brings us to Berdymukhammedov.

Candidate Berdymukhammedov is generous, at least in clips aired on state television and reports in state media. On January 30, he was touring an area in Akhal Province and, with a big smile, gave what were said to be televisions to herders. (In the background is the cleanest yurt I've ever seen in the Kara-Kum desert.)

Turkmen President Campaigns In Akhal Province
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Technically, candidates are not allowed to give gifts to voters, but Turkmenistan’s Central Election Commission explained to RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, that Berdymukhammedov was giving the gifts as the country’s president, not as a candidate.

Berdymukhammedov has been seen on state television giving away copies of the dozens of books he has supposedly written to officials, or small gifts of money to women on International Women’s Day. (Beyond this, I cannot remember him giving any gifts to "average" citizens.)

The Turkmen President's Book Of Tea
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A week earlier, Berdymukhammedov the president was in eastern Lebap Province, inspecting construction projects. Berdymukhammedov the candidate took a few minutes to meet with workers and during the meeting asked if everyone in the room had been to Turkmenistan’s Caspian coast resort area of Avaza. One man raised his hand to show he had not. Berdymukhammedov said he would send the man and his family to Avaza.

The trip was undoubtedly a gift from Berdymukhammedov the president, not the candidate.

While visiting with workers at a gas complex in Akhal Province on January 30, Berdymukhammedov, just an average guy at heart, gave the crowd what they were reportedly asking for and took the stage with guitar in hand to "perform" for the people.

This Berdymukhammedov is different from the Berdymukhammedov seen on state television earlier in January, who dismissed 14 deputy district chiefs, all for "shortcomings" in their work, and reprimanded dozens more officials. He fired Ashgabat Mayor Muradniyaz Abilov, calling him a "bastard."

In 2016, state television also showed Berdymukhammedov dismissing and reprimanding dozens of officials. On February 5, 2016, he dismissed the head of the presidential administration, Palvan Taganov, telling Taganov, "It is a great pity that you have failed to perform the duties entrusted to you," then ordering him to get out of the room "straight away."

And then, of course, there is this footage of Berdymukhammedov in 2011 ridiculing officials:

Video Captures Turkmen President Bullying Officials
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Berdymukhammedov’s active campaigning this time around -- and his "nice guy" act -- are probably just further proof of Turkmenistan’s economic crisis. Were times better in Turkmenistan, it is unlikely we would be seeing the smiling Berdymukhammedov seen on state television since late January.

We probably won’t see this new Berdymukhammedov after the election is over, either, when he'll be enjoying a new seven-year term in office.

Farruh Yusupov, the director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, contributed to this report
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev addresses the nation live on TV on January 30. It was his second such speech in just under a week.

On January 30, for the second time in less than a week, an announcement suddenly went out in Kazakhstan that the country's leader, President Nursultan Nazarbaev, would make an important speech to the nation within hours on national television.

But Nazarbaev's January 30 "special statement" proved as unspectacular as his January 25 address to the nation.

In fact, after television channels once again cleared airtime in the 9 p.m. prime-time broadcasting slot, Nazarbaev's January 30 statement lasted only about five minutes as he mentioned, first in Kazakh then in Russian, that a "third modernization" was coming to Kazakhstan. He then said that this year, rather than read out his annual address to the country it would appear in print on January 31, leaving Kazakhstan's citizens to wait until the next day and read for themselves in state newspapers what a "third modernization" means.

In his January 25 address to the nation, Nazarbaev just said there would be some changes to the constitution intended to better balance the powers between the presidency and the parliament and government. Everyone already knew that, because Nazarbaev had announced those changes more than one month earlier in his Independence Day address to the nation.

These "surprise" announcements from the president to Kazakhs, which sent television and radio stations rushing to clear airtime, stand in stark contrast to events in the spring of 2016.

Stark Contrast

In late April and again on May 21, some of the biggest protests in nearly two decades broke out in cities across Kazakhstan over land reform plans that many in the country interpreted as meaning foreigners, specifically Chinese, would be able to lease land in Kazakhstan.

There were no emergency statements from Nazarbaev on television.

WATCH: Kazakh Authorities Crack Down On Land Protests

Kazakh Security Forces Crack Down On Land Code Protests
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On June 5, a group of some two dozen young men allegedly robbed a gun shop then attacked a military facility in Kazakhstan's western city of Aqtobe. Twenty-five people were killed, most of them alleged attackers.

Again, there was no urgent statement on television from President Nazarbaev.

On July 18, a recently released convict shot and killed 10 people in Almaty, eight of them policemen -- an incident that led city authorities to declare a lockdown on Kazakhstan's commercial capital amid fears of a terrorist attack.

No special announcement from Nazarbaev on that day either.

Succession Plans?

The recent sudden announcements of important televised statements from Kazakhstan's president naturally prompted speculation on both occasions that he might be announcing succession plans, maybe even his resignation.

Nazarbaev turns 77 this July. Uzbekistan's longtime president, Islam Karimov, died recently at the age of 78, and since Karimov's death there have been an unusual number of changes and some arrests of officials in Kazakhstan.

But after Nazarbaev's recent television appearances, and his failure to appear on television during times of national crises last year, another thought occurs to me: Maybe he is no longer in total control of the country. He remains president, but others might now be carrying out some or most of the affairs of state.

We'll have to wait until his next sudden, important statement on television to get more clues.

Yerzhan Karabek of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.



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