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Turkmen President Acts Tough In Videos, But Keeps Distance From Real Threats

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov fires a pistol while riding a bike in his most recent video.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov fires a pistol while riding a bike in his most recent video.

If you've ever seen state television news from Turkmenistan, you've seen him.

He's big.

He's bad.

He's the pistol-packing, knife-throwing president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. And he has just showed off his alleged martial skills to the world yet again, in a recent clip aired on Turkmenistan's Altyn Asyr TV news.

Berdymukhammedov has a flair for theatrics. Not necessarily good theatrics.

The latest Berdymukhammedov-the-warrior video reminds me of the ones of him playing musical instruments and singing. You can see he is holding a guitar or sitting at the piano, but the shots continuously cut away from his face to some hands, making it impossible to tell if it really is the president playing the music.

It's the same with the most recent "Rambo" video. Berdymukhammedov is shown holding a gun, then there is a cutaway to a hand firing a pistol, then a hole appears in the target (I'll get back to that at the end).

But, as I mentioned in an earlier article about Berdymukhammedov's New Year music video assault on Turkmen TV viewers, making fun of these clips is like shooting fish in a barrel.

Ever since the release of the first macho video from Arkadag -- which means "protector" and is what he wants people to call him -- in early August 2017, I've been watching to see where this daredevil of the Gara-Gum Desert would turn up next. I even went back a little before that to see where Arkadag had been before the summer of 2017, when he decided it was time to show his troops how to fight.

Of course, in the Golden Age of Happiness and Prosperity, or whatever official age it is in Turkmenistan, there is no major internal threat to Berdymukhammedov's government. The threat seems to be a hypothetical force from outside the country because it is at Turkmenistan's border posts where one finds Berdymukhammedov clad in military fatigues -- or sometimes a jeans jacket -- packing heat, calling in air strikes, or sometimes even, seemingly, piloting attack helicopters.

So, what border posts has he visited?

On March 31, 2016, Altyn Asyr TV showed Berdymukhammedov visiting the border post at Serakhs, on the Iranian border.

In January 2017, he visited the Khazar border post in Turkmenbashi City on the Caspian coast for the launching of a new naval vessel, coincidentally named "Arkadag." In October of that same year, Berdymukhammedov arrived by helicopter at the Avaza border post on the Caspian coast, inspected the troops, and drove away in an all-terrain vehicle.

On January 10, 2018, he was back behind the wheel of an all-terrain vehicle speeding through the desert to inspect another -- this time unnamed -- border post.

There were no reports of Berdymukhammedov visiting border posts along Turkmenistan's frontiers with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Those borders must be safer than Turkmenistan's Caspian coast.

But there is one border where it appears Berdymukhammedov is rarely seen; the frontier with Afghanistan. It took some digging, but it turns out Berdymukhammedov did visit the Turkmen-Afghan border once, in late February 2018.

Since early 2014, there has been fighting in northern Afghanistan and it has spilled over the border.

In February 2014, three Turkmen border guards were killed, and three months later three more Turkmen soldiers were killed in a different area along the Afghan border. There have also been sporadic reports of stray bullets and shells landing on Turkmen territory, and of other casualties among Turkmen troops.

Surely this is the place where someone with Berdymukhammedov's alleged combat prowess is most needed. And indeed, on February 24, Arkadag traveled to the new border post at Serhetabat on the Afghan border.

If that date rings a bell, it should. Because on February 23, 2018, the leaders of Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan were all with Berdymukhammedov in Serhetabat to attend the ceremonial welding together of a segment of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural-gas pipeline.

Security in that particular area along the border had probably never been so tight as it was for the brief period preceding and immediately following that event.

In fact, Berdymukhammedov even made a visit to Herat, Afghanistan for a brief few hours on February 23 for more ceremonies and speeches. That is the only visit Berdymukhammedov has ever made to Afghanistan.

One could get the impression he didn't want to stay there for long -- even though it is a relatively secure city in Afghanistan.

And now, back to the bicycle-riding, pistol-shooting Berdymukhammedov from a few days ago. In a segment of the video that Eurasianet writer and editor Peter Leonard posted on Twitter, I couldn't help but notice that at the 28-second mark, Arkadag's shot looks like it missed the mark entirely and kicked up a bit of dust in the field behind it -- although remarkably the target still falls.

Who can say where the big, bad Berdymukhammedov will turn up next.

The only thing we can be fairly sure of is that it will be somewhere far from any real danger.

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

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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