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The Grandson-In-Waiting: Is Turkmenistan Trying To Establish A New Dynasty?

Kerimguly Berdymukhammedov, the president's grandson.

It appears there is a new contender in Central Asia seeking to establish the region’s first dynasty in more than 100 years.

The idea has not enjoyed much success in recent decades but that hasn’t stopped practically all the leaders from attempting the feat anyway.

The latest leader who seems to be jockeying for a dynasty is Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. The former dentist, virtually unknown to the Turkmen people prior to being named leader after the death of his predecessor in late 2006, has come a long way since his timid early days as Turkmenistan’s president.

Now Berdymukhammedov is throwing his grandson under the spotlight.

First, a bit of background. April 26 was the Day of the Horse in Turkmenistan.

Before the Russians conquered the area some 130 years ago, the Turkmen of the southeastern Caspian region were desert nomads, often plunderers, whose great advantage on their home territory was their horsemanship. They were master riders and the horse native to area -- the Akhal Teke -- is legendary, so much so that Chinese history records the efforts of Chinese emperors to secure some of these horses more than 2,000 years ago. Turkmen today still have great respect for horses; it’s part of their culture.

President Berdymukhammedov is an avid equestrian. Even being thrown from his horse in public a few years back has not caused his passion to wane.

However, at this year’s celebrations it was not the president, but rather his grandson Kerimguly, who was the center of attention. State television aired footage of Kerimguly riding around the Ashgabat horse-track.

(WATCH: Kerimguly riding a horse)

“I am a sixth-grade student of school #43 in Ashgabat,” he told reporters. “I’m 12 years old,” he continued. “We [Kerimguly and the president] go together to see horses, that’s where my grandfather taught me to race horses.”

And of course, Kerimguly won the race shown on state television and has been shown with his grandfather at other public events recently.

(WATCH: Presidential grandson plays piano)

It could be just a cute story of a grandfather and his grandson, but this is Turkmenistan and things like this happen for a reason. RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, was told by sources inside Turkmenistan that before classes started in Ashgabat schools on April 27, all the students were called to an assembly. Teachers reportedly retold the story of Kerimguly’s great victory at the horse race and praised the grandson’s mastery on horseback.

Students were reportedly told to learn from Kerimguly and look upon him as a role model.

A similar process in under way in Tajikistan where President Emomali Rahmon’s 28-year-old son Rustam Emomali has been working his way up the government ladder. Since late 2013 Rustam Emomali has been deputy head and head of Tajikistan's Customs Service, and since March this year he is the director of the state agency for financial control and combating corruption.

The leaders in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, both of whom have daughters, seem to have at least pondered a leadership role for their eldest children. But in both cases their eldest daughters’ personal lives have caused scandals and prevented them from rising to the top spot.

But the best example of the perils of trying to set up a dynasty in Central Asia comes from Kyrgyzstan. Former President Askar Akaev seemed reluctant to leave office at the beginning of 2005. Two of his children -- Bermet and Aidar -- ran in the 2005 parliamentary elections, which got off to a bad start when one of the candidates from Bermet's voting district was disqualified on dubious grounds.

That candidate was Roza Otunbaeva who would later become Kyrgyzstan’s president. In 2005, having already served as the country’s foreign minister and after working for the United Nations, she was running for a seat in parliament.

Bermet and Aidar won seats but their father was chased from office during widespread unrest caused by the clearly unfair conduct of the elections. None of them have lived in Kyrgyzstan for a decade now.

Akaev’s successor Kurmanbek Bakiev started concentrating more power into his hands and in late 2009 appointed his then 32-year-old son Maksim to be director of the newly created agency for development, investment, and innovation, an organization that was effectively in charge of the country’s finances. Maksim also appeared to be destined for higher posts in the Kyrgyz government but foolishly decided to misuse and embezzle funds from a Russian loan.

The Kremlin unleashed its media on the Bakievs, a precursor of what would happen in Ukraine in 2014, and the Bakiev family was forced to flee the country amid growing popular unrest in April 2010. They also never returned.

Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan are at opposite ends of the Central Asian political spectrum. Turkmenistan has been compared to North Korea, so it's possible a dynasty would have its best chance to take root. But it has been a long time since emirs and khans held power in Central Asia and the era of family rule might have gone with them.

-- Bruce Pannier. RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service Director Muhammad Tahir contributed to this report.

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 the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

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


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