Turkmen state television is usually filled with happy faces, people singing and dancing, seemingly enjoying hard and sometimes unpaid work in a field under the hot sun.
There are, of course, also the news reports about the great successes and advances for the country thanks to the wise leadership of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.
Everything is bright and beautiful on Turkmen television -- even if reality is something entirely different.
But lately, some reports on TV in the country have been dark and ugly.
The latest: Interior Minister Iskander Mulikov standing during a cabinet session on October 1 while receiving a tongue-lashing from Berdymukhammedov, then being fired and ordered to “get out of the room” by the president in a publicly televised scene of humiliation.
On September 13, state television showed Trade and Foreign Economic Relations Minister Amandurdy Ishanov and several other men, handcuffed, weeping, and confessing to being involved in corruption.
On December 1, 2018, state television showed a group of men handcuffed, crying, and confessing to crimes.
The reason for airing such spectacles seems to be to show the populace that the state is serious about fighting corruption and that people such as those confessing on television are responsible for the incredibly dire economic situation Turkmenistan is experiencing currently.
Humiliated By Niyazov
Such practices are certainly not an invention of Berdymukhammedov’s regime, but they are not even original in Turkmen media. The country’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, used public humiliation and made it a feature of his public dismissals of officials. And often, though not always, it was a reaction to economic difficulties.
In December 2002, the alleged mastermind of an alleged assassination attempt on Niyazov barely one month earlier, appeared on state television. That man, Turkmen Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, confessed on air. Others alleged to be involved were also paraded in front of the cameras to denounce themselves and their alleged cohorts. Some compared those aired confessions to Josef Stalin’s Great Purge trials of the 1930s.
But just as Berdymukhammedov railed against Mulikov on October 1, Niyazov was known for throwing in snide comments when criticizing or sacking officials.
In December 2001, Niyazov was criticizing the head of the country’s Daikhan Bank for somehow acquiring four houses. The state forced the bank chief to give the houses to the state. Niyazov noted this on television and said, “We must accept such gifts from thieves.”
WATCH: 'You're Fired': Turkmen President Dumps Interior Minister On TV
In a television report in October 1998 about Niyazov’s visit to the Mary Province to express his disappointment with the cotton harvest there, the Turkmen president told officials they had grown fat while the country prepared to go hungry. “If the situation does not improve, you will be the next to face hunger,” Niyazov warned.
In November 2000, Niyazov went to Lebap to find out why officials there failed to meet the cotton harvest target. That was a drought year that ended with some of the coldest temperatures inner Asia had experienced in winter in many years. Niyazov sacked seven district chiefs, three provincial officials, and demoted the provincial governor to mayor of the provincial capital, Turkmenabat.
State television showed Niyazov saying, “One can always find reasons for failure in the cotton campaign: water shortages, cold weather, and so on. This is all pure nonsense.”
Bring fired for incompetence was a merciful way to go.
Many were shown on television being fired for immorality or, like former Mary Deputy Governor Bayram Berdiev in August 2001, sacked because, as Niyazov put it, “he drank and spent time with drunk people, and he used drugs.”
In August 31, 2006, when long-time Prosecutor-General Gurbanbibi Atajanova was dragged before Niyazov with the cameras rolling to beg for mercy after being caught with 25 cars, 36 villas, and 2,000 head of cattle, she received a lecture from Niyazov on how she had betrayed the people and the country. No pity. No mercy.
Almost all the people shown being criticized or dismissed on state television ended up in prison.
Fired on October 1, Mulikov was already rumored to be detained and facing charges the next day. It is unknown if he will be imprisoned.
Mulikov’s father and Berdymukhammedov’s father have apparently known one another for many years. It is unclear if the two older men are on friendly terms. Some say “yes,” and interpret the fact that Mulikov received 12 reprimands over the course of several years before finally being sacked as possible evidence that Berdymukhammedov, out of deference to his father’s acquaintance, was loath to dismiss Mulikov.
But others think the repeated reprimands were Berdymukhammedov’s way of tormenting the son of a man his father does not like.
There are also some who believe Mulikov’s ultimate downfall is the result of infighting in the Turkmen government and that National Security Minister Yaylym Berdiev has won the battle and taken down Mulikov and the former trade minister, soon-to-be-convict Ishanov.
Whatever the case, it was Mulikov being humiliated on state television this time, though there have already been dozens before him. And for as long as Berdymukhammedov’s regime survives, more weeping people in handcuffs will probably appear on state television confessing guilt, weakness, and personal deficiencies.
WATCH: In Cuffs And In Tears: Turkmen President Shames Minister For Alleged Corruption
It has been a part of the Turkmen system since the early years of independence in the early 1990s.
There is one notable difference between Niyazov and Berdymukhammedov.
Niyazov never projected himself publicly as a nice guy. He had the same sort of smile as Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov. It did not look natural, almost like the muscles used to smile were on the verge of atrophy during periods of their lives (both were raised in state orphanages).
In state portraits, even on the national currency, Niyazov had his mouth closed and a serious look. When he berated and fired officials it was what one would expect him do. Niyazov was “Turkmenbashi,” the head of the Turkmen people, not their friend.
Berdymukhammedov has always tried to convey a different image, one who’s always in good spirits and enjoying life. In the photos on any Turkmen state media website or when state television films him singing and pretending to play musical instruments, Berdymukhammedov is smiling broadly and usually flashing the clean white teeth one would expect on a person who is a trained dentist. The media calls Berdymukhammedov “Arkadag,” or “the protector.”
But in these recent episodes of rebuking and humiliating officials on state television, Berdymukhammedov does not look like a “protector.” He is the stern and nasty, disappointed leader. That might be closer to the real Berdymukhammedov, but it does paint a stark contrast.
It is also a wretched example of leadership to show to the public, since it could become accepted as a model for how management should treat workers and how people should interact with others.