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Turkmenistan's President-In-Waiting: Who Is Serdar Berdymukhammedov?

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (center) casts his ballot as his son Serdar (right) stands with other family members at a polling station in Ashgabat in February 2017.

When Turkmenistan holds a snap presidential election on March 12, it's all but certain that Serdar Berdymukhammedov -- the son of authoritarian leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov -- will become the country's next president.

The younger Berdymukhammedov's public profile has been rising rapidly in recent years, with multiple high-ranking posts and frequent appearances at public events as he has been groomed by his father to become the president of Turkmenistan, which sits atop the world's fourth-largest reserves of natural gas.

Despite his growing presence on the political scene, little is known about the personal life and character of the president-in-waiting, whom former colleagues once described as someone who is paranoid about his own security and looks down on subordinates.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov, 40, suddenly entered politics in November 2016, when he became a member of parliament at the same time that he was the head of the Information Department of the Foreign Ministry.

He was promoted to the position of deputy foreign minister in March 2018, and his political career has since risen fast, with a new, higher government post being added to his resume every couple of months.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov was appointed the deputy governor of Ahal Province in January 2019 and became governor six months later.

In February 2020 he was made industry minister, a post he held for a year before becoming a deputy prime minister, or deputy chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov addresses a meeting of the People's Council in Ashgabat in February.
Serdar Berdymukhammedov addresses a meeting of the People's Council in Ashgabat in February.

The latter is an important post in Turkmenistan, since the position of prime minister doesn't exist and the president -- Serdar's father -- is also the head of the cabinet.

That effectively made Serdar Berdymukhammedov the second-most-powerful person in Turkmenistan.

Along with that portfolio, the younger Berdymukhammedov was simultaneously made a member of the Security Council and the head of the Supreme Control Chamber, a body that inspects the government budget and spending.

Fast Climber, Few Details Known

A graduate of the Turkmen State Agricultural University, Serdar Berdymukhammedov has also studied international relations in Geneva and Moscow. He is married with four children, although in the secretive country nothing more is known about his family.

His rise through the ranks began as his father was dogged by rumors of ill-heath.

Despite his carefully crafted public image as an energetic fitness fanatic who loves cycling and jogging, the elder Berdymukhammedov is said to suffer from serious health issues, including diabetes.

The president disappeared from the public eye for several weeks in the summer of 2019, prompting speculation he was in a coma or even dead. When he returned to public life, he continued to vigorously prepare his son for succession.

'I Will Twist Your Neck'

Turkmenistan's tightly controlled state media has dubbed Serdar Berdymukhammedov the "son of the nation," while portraying him as a "humble and kindhearted" family man who has earned "the respect of his colleagues."

According to some of his former subordinates, however, he is anything but modest and kind.

In a rare glimpse into his working life, a former employee at the Ahal Provincial governor's office once claimed that when Serdar Berdymukhammedov was at work the staff was ordered to be quiet, not use their mobile phones, and "not to leave their offices unless absolutely necessary."

He was also said to threaten his subordinates by saying he would "twist your neck," the former worker told the Austria-based Chronicles Of Turkmenistan website.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov also appeared to pay great attention to his own security. He came to work in a motorcade of vehicles with tinted windows, accompanied by security officers, "just like a presidential convoy," according to the former colleague.

A security guard was stationed behind his office door and only a handful of officials had permission to enter his office to speak with him.

Some Ahal residents told the Chronicles of Turkmenistan they had the impression that Serdar Berdymukhammedov was uninterested in the lives and problems of ordinary people.

They said he refused to meet people who came to the governor’s office to discuss their issues, despite it being part of his work as governor.

Not Quite 'Like Father, Like Son'

Along with government posts, Serdar Berdymukhammedov has also been made the head of the Turkmen Alabay Dog Association and the Ashgabat-based International Association of Akhal-Teke Horse Breeding.

The Turkmen Alabay and Akhal-Teke are the favorite breeds of dogs and horses, respectively, of President Berdymukhammedov, who has even dedicated books and erected massive gold statues to them.

It's not known if the younger Berdymukhammedov shares his father's passion for animals. He also doesn't appear to pursue the president's other hobbies, such as singing, driving fast cars, and shooting.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov takes part in celebrations for the national Alabay and Akhal-Teke holiday near Ashgabat on April 25, 2021.
Serdar Berdymukhammedov takes part in celebrations for the national Alabay and Akhal-Teke holiday near Ashgabat on April 25, 2021.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov will inherit a county plagued by poverty, corruption, and unemployment. Despite relatively high birthrates, Turkmenistan faces a population decline as millions of people have left the country due to a lack of opportunities and personal freedom.

It is unknown whether he will have real political power after he assumes office, or if his father will still call the shots.

One way or another, many Turkmen say they don't expect any meaningful change or real improvement in the country as long as the presidency remains in the hands of the Berdymukhammedov family.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.