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Silly Dictator Story #25: Turkmenistan’s 'Protector' Becomes Photobomber-In-Chief

Portraits of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov are ubiquitous in Turkmenistan.
Portraits of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov are ubiquitous in Turkmenistan.
Personality cults don’t build themselves. They take an amount of time and patience that few can comprehend, let alone master. No one knows that better than Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

Turkmen see the portraits of their self-proclaimed “protector”-- the most obvious emblem of his rule -- everywhere, in schools, public offices, public spaces, and plastered on buildings.

As if that wasn’t enough, Berdymukhammedov is now popping up in people’s wedding photos.

Newlyweds have already had a tough time keeping up ever since a list of lengthy wedding requirements and duties emerged in late 2011.

More than a year later, as couples continue to make their way to the “Toy Mekany" (Turkmen for “Wedding Palace”), where they register and celebrate their nuptials, there are now reports that they have no choice but to include the portrait of the Turkmen President in their wedding photos.

An RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent says newlyweds have pointed out that because it is obligatory for the "Wedding Palace" to hang Berdymukhammedov’s portrait, it is also becoming obligatory for newlyweds to take a photo in front of it.

Merjen from Turkmenistan told RFE/RL that Berdymukhammedov's portraits have now become the default background for a couple's wedding photos.

“Frankly I have no idea whether it was obligatory to take a photo in front of the president’s portrait," she said. "But when I look at the wedding pictures of my relatives or friends there are always photos of the president. All of them had photos with him in them.”

However, those who are planning to get married soon can at least console themselves that they won't have to take a picture in front of an outdated photograph, because a massive new campaign to replace the old Berdymukhammedov portraits is now taking place across the country.

Wearing a blue suit and a red tie, and looking a bit more youthful in his new portrait photos, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service reports that high school teachers are being forced to collect money from their students in order to replace the old portraits with the new one. The price of a framed portrait to be purchased by a high school costs at least 30 manats ($11).

Arslan, a 35-year-old man who works at a private printing house in Ashgabat, told RFE/RL that the portraits are replaced with new versions almost every year.

“We are tired of it," he said. "Last year, we had to raise money for two replacements. The portraits are different and vary in price. There are portraits of the president with a white dove and another one with a green pen."

Berdymukhammedov's predecessor, the late President Saparmurat Niyazov was also known for his controversial policies aimed at building up his personality cult.

Niyazov even went so far as to change the official names of the days and months, renaming January to Turkmenbashi or “Father of the Turkmen” -- a title he had bestowed on himself.

To many, Berdymukhammedov's portraits seem like small beer by comparison.

-- Deana Kjuka & RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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