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Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has begun building his own personality cult, critics say, calling himself Arkadag (The Protector).

Authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov appears certain to extend his rule for seven more years in a presidential election in hermetic, gas-rich Turkmenistan on February 12.

Berdymukhammedov, who has control over all aspects of society, is expected to easily defeat eight other candidates who are widely seen as window dressing for the vote in the Central Asian country.

"Every election in the past 25 years has been rigged and there is no real opposition in the country -- the society is oppressed and independent media is practically nonexistent," said Michal Romanowski, an expert on Eurasia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

In power since 2006, Berdymukhammedov is running against little-known regional government officials, lawmakers, and heads of companies on a ballot that includes candidates from more than one party for the first time. The changes come after the 59-year-old incumbent said last year that there would be "alternatives" in the 2017 election.

But no parliamentary or presidential election held in Turkmenistan has been deemed free or fair by international monitors since the country gained independence in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. According to official results, Berdymukhammedov won 89 percent of the vote in 2006 and 97 percent in 2012.

Not only [is] society controlled and freedom of movement restricted, Turkmen [citizens] have no access to independent sources of information."
-- Eurasia expert Michal Romanowski

Observers say the presence of unknown candidates and state-created parties in this election is unlikely to make a difference in a country where all media outlets are controlled by the state.

"Only 15 percent of Turkmen society has access to the Internet,” Romanowski told RFE/RL. “So not only the society is controlled and freedom of movement restricted, Turkmen [citizens] have no access to independent sources of information."

The tightly controlled state media gave little coverage to the other eight candidates’ election campaigns, occasionally showing brief clips of meetings with voters.

And those candidates' election platforms steered clear of political matters or the human rights situation in Turkmenistan, considered by rights watchdogs to be among the worst in the world.

Berdymukhammedov, on the other hand, enjoyed blanket media coverage in frequent appearances in cities and towns across the sprawling, sparsely populated nation of 5.3 million.

Recently the president -- who is known for his love of singing, auto racing, and horseback riding -- was shown on state TV singing a song during a meeting with workers in Akhal Province.

In another appearance, Berdymukhammedov was seen giving big, bright green boxes that reportedly contained television sets to a group of shepherds who vowed to vote for him in return.

WATCH: Vote-Buying In Turkmenistan?

Vote-Buying In Turkmenistan?
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Critics say that was one of several recent incidents that seemed to violate the country’s election law, which bars candidates from influencing voters with money or gifts and guarantees equal access to the media for all candidates.

Two days before the vote, international watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said that "persecution" of the few remaining independent journalists has intensified in the past two years in Turkmenistan, which RSF ranks 178th out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index.

"The world cannot remain indifferent to the contempt that its government displays for its international obligations," RSF said. "We urge the country's foreign partners to press Ashgabat to deliver serious human rights reforms and to uphold the right to freedom of expression."

While Berdymukhammedov has not been declared president for life, as his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov was in 1999, Turkmenistan did amend its constitution last year to extend the presidential term from five to seven years and remove the 70-year age limit for candidates.

A dentist-turned-politician, Berdymukhammedov came to power after the death of the eccentric Niyazov, who was known for his extensive personality cult and brutal crackdowns on dissent.

Berdymukhammedov brought some mild reforms early in his presidency, such as reintroducing foreign languages to the school curriculum and reopening village hospitals closed down by Niyazov.

But critics say any hopes for a turn toward democratic ideals were quickly dashed, lamenting that the country still has no real opposition parties and that political dissenters are sent to prison or placed in psychiatric hospitals.

"Since he took power 10 years ago, he has increased his personal control and ... there are no competitors, there are no checks and balances built [into the system]," said Jozef Lang, a Central Asia analyst at the Center for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw. "The president controls both the elite and the society in a very tight way."

Observers say Berdymukhammedov has also begun building his own personality cult, styling himself as Arkadag (The Protector). A 21-meter marble and gold-leaf statue of Berdymukhammedov on horseback, holding a dove, was erected in the center of the capital, Ashgabat, in 2015.

"He [declared himself] 'the protector' of society, but what he really wants to protect is his grasp on power and access to the hydrocarbon wealth that provides him and his narrow circle with significant profits," said Romanowski.

But Berdymukhammedov’s third run for the presidency comes as the economy is struggling following a steep decline in global energy prices and a severe drop in exports.

Many state salaries are not being paid on time and the country also faces a deficit of staples such as cooking oil, flour, and sugar, as well as medicine, leading to price hikes in bazaars.

Photographs from Ashgabat and other cities showed long lines at government-owned grocery shops ahead of New Year celebrations.

During the election campaign, the government ordered private traders in bazaars to lower food prices, according to merchants and consumers.

"We are suffering heavy losses," a merchant in the northern city of Dashoguz, where prices were reduced ahead of Berdymukhammedov’s visit to the province in January, told RFE/RL. He spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing government reprisals.

Ahead of the election, Human Rights Watch said Turkmenistan has denied its citizens "the ability to choose their president freely or enjoy freedom of expression or access to information."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sent a limited observation mission to review the country’s election laws and their implementation -- the first time the OSCE has ever sent monitors to a presidential election in Turkmenistan.

But Lang said he expects the vote will do little to change the reality beneath a veneer of democracy.

"Turkmenistan is a highly authoritarian state, yet it does have a facade of democratic institutions, and one of them is elections," he said.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service
Ukrainian novelist Serhiy Zhadan, in Minsk, shows a stamp in his passport that denies him entry to Belarus.

MINSK -- A popular Ukrainian writer says he was seized by Belarusian security agents in the middle of the night while visiting Minsk and ordered to leave the country.

Serhiy Zhadan said on February 11 that he was in Minsk to attend a poetry festival but was ordered to leave on the basis of a 2015 Russian entry ban that accused him of "involvement in terrorism."

Zhadan said police and Belarusian KGB agents entered his hotel room while he was sleeping at about 2 a.m. on February 11 and took him into custody.

Zhadan, an acclaimed novelist and poet whose books have been widely translated, said nothing was explained to him initially by the authorities who detained him.

He said he was taken to a jail in Minsk, where he spent the rest of the night in a cell.

Serhiy Zhadan, "Ukraine's most famous counterculture writer"
Serhiy Zhadan, "Ukraine's most famous counterculture writer"

Zhadan said he was told later about the Russian entry ban and was ordered to leave the country by the end of the day on February 11.

Writing on Facebook, Zhadan said: "It turns out that back in 2015 they banned me from entering Russia...for 'involvement in terrorist activity'."

Belarus has a border agreement with neighboring Russia, but Ukrainian citizens are allowed to visit either country without a visa.

Zhadan took part in pro-European protests in Kyiv that led to the ouster of Ukraine's Moscow-backed president in 2014.

In addition to the 2015 travel ban imposed against him by Russia, Zhadan had been targeted and assaulted by pro-Russia activists during the 2014 Maidan protests in Kyiv.

Iryna Herashchenko, first deputy speaker of Ukraine's parliament, told RFE/RL’s Belarus Service on February 11 that Russia created a special list of banned Ukrainian politicians and activists in an attempt to influence relations between Minsk and Kyiv.

"Russia's FSB (Federal Security Service) is behind this,' Herashchenko said. "There is a blacklist in which there are hundreds of Ukrainian politicians, activists, and public figures."

Calling the incident “a real disgrace,” Herashchenko said Zhadan’s case was "very worrying" and "does not add trust to bilateral relations" between Ukraine and Belarus.

She said Russia's FSB should not be in a position to be able to decide which Ukrainians can and cannot visit Belarus.

Belarusian media published a photograph of Zhadan holding his passport with a stamp saying he is banned from entering Belarus.

That stamp does not include an expiry date for the ban.

The 42-year-old Zhadan lives in Kharkiv in the Kyiv-controlled part of eastern Ukraine.

He grew up in the Luhansk region that is now partly controlled by Russia-backed separatists and has openly supported Ukrainian government forces that are battling those separatists.

His support for Ukrainian government forces has included visits to the conflict zone and the raising of funds to help those living in the war-torn area.

His novels have won numerous European prizes.

In 2014, The New Yorker magazine called him "Ukraine's most famous counterculture writer."

With additional reporting by AP, AFP, and Interfax Ukraine

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