Authorities in Turkmenistan have unveiled a giant golden statue of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov on horseback in the capital, a towering sign of a growing personality cult celebrating the authoritarian leader.
Students chanted "Glory to Arkadag!" -- a reference to Berdymukhammedov's official title, the Protector -- as the 21-meter monument was presented to the public on May 25 to mark Ashgabat Day. White doves and colored balloons were released into the sky.
The monument in a central square depicts Berdykhmukhammedov riding a horse, both of them gilded with 24-carat gold, and holding a dove.
With its thrusting marble pedestal, the monument bears a strong resemblance to the Bronze Horseman, the iconic equestrian statue of Russian Tsar Peter the Great that was unveiled in St. Petersburg in 1782. But it's taller.
A dentist by profession, Berdymukhamedov has ruled natural-gas-rich Turkmenistan since the death of his eccentric and ruthless predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006.
No Real Change
Niyazov, who was officially titled Turkmenbashi (The Leader of Turkmens), cultivated an elaborate personality cult that included numerous gold-leafed monuments to himself.
The most prominent was a 15-meter statue that stood on a 75-meter marble-plated plinth in Ashgabat and rotated so that it always faced the sun.
That monument was removed on Berdymukhammedov's order in 2010.
Berdymukhammedov has promised to introduce democratic reforms in his country, but has brought little real change.
While he has courted China, Russia, and the West as customers for Turkmenistan's natural gas, the largely desert nation of 5.1 million remains isolated from the outside world.
Turkmenistan is regularly blacklisted as one of Freedom House's "Worst of the Worst" list of repressive countries for its lack of civil liberties.
The 57-year-old president has shown enthusiam for hardy and majestic local Akhal Teke horses.
Last year, the parliament named Berdymukhammedov a "Master Jockey and Mentor". At a day of equestrian events in April, he was recognized as a "People's Horse Breeder" -- an equestrian play on Soviet-era honorary titles.
But not all has gone well in Berdymkuhammedov's equestrian experience: He fell off a horse seconds after winning a race in 2013, an incident that was viewed thousands of times on YouTube.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, AFP, AP, and Reuters